‘Rust’ tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

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As Fox News has reported, state prosecutors in New Mexico, have announced that they are filing two counts of involuntary manslaughter against Alec Baldwin in the October 2021 killing of Halyna Hutchins on the set of “Rust,” a Western they were then filming.

Hutchins, a 42-year-old Ukrainian-born veteran cinematographer, was fatally shot when the gun Baldwin pointed at her during rehearsal discharged. The 64-year-old Hollywood and television star has maintained that he is not responsible for the tragic accident, claiming he did not pull the weapon’s trigger – although he has stated that he pulled back the gun’s hammer and released it. Last August, an FBI forensic analysis concluded, to the contrary, that the trigger had to have been pulled.

Also charged in both counts is Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the so-called armorer for the film’s production. The shooting occurred on the set at a ranch in Bonanza City, N.M. That’s about 13 miles south of Santa Fe County, whose Sheriff’s Office conducted an extensive investigation but did not make a charging recommendation. First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altweis decided to file criminal charges.

'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

In addition to the evidence developed in the sheriff’s report, the prosecution will rely on the testimony of a third defendant. Dave Halls, the first assistant director on the film project, agreed to plead guilty to a charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon. Assuming the court agrees to the plea-bargain terms (which courts typically do), Hall will be sentenced to six months probation, evading a term of incarceration.

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The gun involved in the case was a Pietta .45 caliber Long Colt Single Action Army revolver. It’s an old-fashioned model that accords with the film’s setting in late-19th century Kansas, based on the screenplay Baldwin co-wrote with director Joel Souza. 

In a touch of tragic irony, an accidental shooting is central to the film’s narrative. In connection with the rehearsal in which Halyna was killed, Halls has acknowledged that he took the gun from Gutierrez-Reed and later handed it to Baldwin. 

'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

On the involuntary manslaughter charges, Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed face potential 18-month prison terms.

To lay my biases on the table, I do not believe the criminal law should be applied to tragic accidents. Having been a federal prosecutor for 20 years, and a deputy U.S. marshal in the federal Witness Protection Program before that, I believe prosecution should be reserved for unlawful conduct that is intentional – or, at the very least, reckless to the point of depravity (e.g., a person who shoots a gun into a crowd). 

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Deaths and injuries caused by tragic mishaps are properly the stuff of civil lawsuits, which frequently yield hefty financial judgments.

Even if I were not firm in that belief, I would argue that D.A. Carmack-Altweis’s decision to charge Baldwin and his co-defendant is overreach. According to the sheriff’s report, moments before the gun was discharged, Hall told Baldwin it was “cold” – i.e., that it was safe to fire because it had only dummy rounds.

Deaths and injuries caused by tragic mishaps are properly the stuff of civil lawsuits, which frequently yield hefty financial judgments.

Despite its girth – 551 pages, summarizing numerous interviews and forensic evidence – a  central failing of the sheriff’s report is that investigators could not determine how live ammunition rounds ended up in the gun, or elsewhere on the set (where five other live rounds were found, including on a belt Baldwin was wearing as part of his costume). 

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Gutierrez-Reed has been faulted for not checking carefully enough to ensure that the rounds used were dummies. She, in turn, has accused a supplier, Seth Kenney, of inadvertently mingling live rounds with dummies. Kenney, who has not been charged in the case, has denied this allegation and points out that it was Gutierrez-Reed’s responsibility, as amorer, to ensure that no live rounds were used.

'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

Apparently conceding that Baldwin truly believed the rounds in the gun were dummies, the prosecutors are proceeding against him on two theories. 

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First, they contend the actor had a duty to ensure that the gun was safe. This is a dubious claim. There seems to be no dispute that Baldwin checked with Hall, who told him the gun was safe. 

Notably, prosecutors have not charged the defendants with negligent discharge of a weapon (a crime in New Mexico) based on the wounding of Souza, the director, who was standing behind Hutchins and struck in the shoulder by a bullet. 

    'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

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    Actor Alec Baldwin ( )

    'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

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    Alec Baldwin posted an ominous message on his Instagram about "big changes." (Jim Spellman)

    'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

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    Hilaria Baldwin and husband Alec welcomed a baby girl in September named Ilaria. The couple (pictured in 2021) have been married for 10 years. (Jason Mendez)

    'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

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    Alec Baldwin (pictured two weeks before the incident in New Mexico) is fighting back against the FBI report from fatal "Rust" set shooting. The Santa Fe medical investigator deemed the incident an accident. (Mark Sagliocco)

    'Rust' tragedy: Alec Baldwin should not be charged in criminal case over shooting death of Halyna Hutchins

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    Actor Alec Baldwin has maintained that he did not pull the trigger of the gun, but instead pulled the hammer back and released it. (Fox News Digital)

If Baldwin is criminally responsible for the death of Hutchins because he did not physically inspect the gun to ensure that it was cold, how could he not also be charged with the wounding of Souza? Prosecutors don’t say.

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That is probably why prosecutors have a second, fallback theory: They insist that, regardless of what he believed about the safety of the gun, Baldwin should never have pointed it at Hutchins. This is at least consistent with the decision not to charge Baldwin with wounding Souza, at whom he did not aim. Still, it is a weak theory.

Under New Mexico law, involuntary manslaughter involves a lawful act that is carried out “without due caution and circumspection” and that results in death. This standard does not convey an unrealistic expectation that people will behave perfectly. It allows for good faith errors. 

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Baldwin did not believe he was pointing a live, lethally functioning gun at Hutchins – after checking and being assured he wasn’t.

Of course, it was appropriate for Hutchins’ family to file a wrongful death action under civil law. And Baldwin was right to settle that case in October by paying a hefty settlement (the amount was not disd). But this tragedy should not be a criminal case.

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