First District District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies publicly disclosed on January 19, 2023, that famed movie and television actor Alex Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez-Reed will each be charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the October 21, 2021, tragic shooting death of Halyna Hutchins.
Hutchins was killed on the set of a movie called “Rust” being filmed in the outskirts of Santa Fe.
The New Mexico Film Office announced the production of “Rust” on October 6, 2021. The state agency said filming for the Rust Movie Productions film was slated to begin in November 2021. During the next two weeks in October, the film’s actors, producers, directors, and crew personnel began practicing scenes for the movie. During one of those practice sessions, Gutierrez-Reed, the movie’s armorer, handed Baldwin a Colt .45, which was supposed to be unloaded. As he practiced drawing and pointing the weapon, a live round in the gun discharged, killing cinematographer Hutchins and wounding First Assistant Director David Halls.
The incident drew international media attention and immediate allegations by several movie set personnel about the dangerous and reckless conditions evident during the film’s production over the first few weeks of the practice sessions.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office began a criminal investigation amid the sensational media attention. The Sheriff’s report was submitted to DA Carmack-Altwies on October 22, 2022.
On November 18, 2022, the Sheriff’s Office released a 550-page report of the findings it submitted to Carmack-Altwies to the public.
This law enforcement criminal investigation prompted Carmack-Altwies and the DA’s special prosecutor Andrea Reeb to proceed with criminal charges against Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed.
The first step in that decision-making process was to secure a plea deal with David Halls requiring him to testify against Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed in exchange for a reduced charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon and six months probation.
In other words, Halls agreed to provide testimony supporting the prosecution’s case theory. That is what plea deal testimony generally does.
Negligent use of a deadly weapon, under New Mexico law, is a petty misdemeanor, while involuntary manslaughter, under New Mexico law, is a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a fine up to $5,000.
The core question then is what kind of testimony can Halls provide to show criminal liability by Baldwin or Gutierrez-Reed?
New Mexico law defines involuntary as a homicide committed in one of three ways: “1) the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony; 2) the commission of a lawful act that might produce death, in an unlawful manner; or 3) the commission of a lawful act that might produce death without due caution and circumspect.”
These three categories mean that involuntary manslaughter occurs only when the killing is unintentional. Specific intent is not an element of the crime.
The prosecutorial burden DA Carmack-Altwies faces is to prove that Hutchins’ killing was the result of an act that went beyond mere negligence, such as a conscious disregard for a substantial and unjustifiable risk that harm could result from the handling of the Colt .45.
This means the DA must show beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin’s and Gutierrez-Reed’s mens rea at the moment of Hutchins’ killing was the product of criminal negligence.
Put another way, the DA must prove that both Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed should have known yet disregarded the “danger” involved in their actions of handling the Colt 45.
That will be a hard case to prove, especially for Baldwin. It seems unfathomable that Baldwin knew a live round was on the set or that he had any reason to believe the gun posed any danger whatsoever.
As far back as 1937, the New Mexico Supreme Court said the mens rea requirement for involuntary manslaughter is criminal negligence that is “so reckless, wanton, and willful as to show an utter disregard for the safety of [others].”
At this point, there is no evidence in the public record that either Baldwin’s or Gutierrez-Reed’s actions with the Colt 45 satisfies this requirement.
The defense will attempt to show that the shooting death of Hutchins was a “tragic accident.”
The general rule of law is that an accidental killing “is excusable because it is an unintended homicide which occurs in the course of performing a lawful act, without criminal negligence.”
The defense will attempt to show that safety protocols were in place as required in the movie industry, insulating Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed from intentional criminal negligence.
Even if there was a breakdown in these protocols, it is arguable that the failures occurred before the Colt .45 reached the hands of Gutierrez-Reed and Baldwin, thus preventing prosecutors from proving the mental state required to establish intentional criminal negligence.
The decision to file criminal charges against Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed, we believe, is not based on law but rather on public perception. It is a typical reaction to horrible facts and killing of an innocent person.
This conclusion is supported by Andrea Reeb’s comments to the media following DA Carmack-Altwies’ announcement that charges would be filed.
“We’re trying to definitely make it clear that everybody’s equal under the law, including A-list actors like Alec Baldwin,” Andrea Reeb said in an interview. “And we also want to make sure that the safety of the film industry is addressed and things like this don’t happen again.”
The law should not be shaped by public perception or political agendas. The law is the law. District attorneys like Carmack-Altwies and Reeb have a duty to know the law and the ethical courage to respect it.
Baldwin’s attorney, Luke Nikas, said the decision to prosecute in the Rust case “distorts Halyna Hutchins’s tragic death and represents a terrible miscarriage of justice … Mr. Baldwin had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun – or anywhere on the movie set. He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds. We will fight these charges, and we will win.”
The union (SAG-AFTRA) representing film, television, radio workers issued a statement following Carmack-Altwies’ announcement to file charges that said while Hutchins’ death was a “preventable” tragedy, there is no reliable evidence that it was “not a failure of duty or a criminal act on the part of any performer … The prosecutor’s contention that an actor has a duty to ensure the functional and mechanical operation of a firearm on a production set is wrong and uninformed. An actor’s job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert.”
We agree. A tragic accident resulting in death a person always begs for accountability and a search for a responsible party. But sometimes, a tragic accident is just that, a tragic accident. Prosecuting two people, who will forever live with their involvement in a accident resulting in death of a co-worker and friend, will not bring justice. It will only lead to false expectations for family of the deceased and the eventual let down when the case is dismissed or results in an acquittal.
From the publicly available information, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies is using the law to further a political public relations agenda. That should be a crime.