What happens now that Alec Baldwin and “Rust” armourer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed have been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins?
The charges, which will be brought by state prosecutors this month, could theoretically result in both of the accused serving up to five years in prison, while also signalling to Hollywood producers that, while New Mexico welcomes their business, officials will be ruthless in their pursuit of unsafe film sets.
What happened to Halyna Hutchins while she was filming Alec Baldwin’s film ‘Rust’?
The “Rust” disaster thrust a low-budget film directed by a major Hollywood star into the public eye:
On Oct. 21, 2021, Baldwin, 64, was rehearsing a scene inside a church that required him to aim in the direction of cinematographer Hutchins when the prop gun he was holding went off, wounding director Joel Souza and killing Hutchins, 42.
The production of “Rust” was halted while authorities in New Mexico gathered evidence. Baldwin told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a sitdown interview in December 2021 that he did not pull the trigger on the gun.
Hutchins’ family announced last fall that they had settled their lawsuit against Baldwin and the film’s producers. “Rust” will resume production in 2023, with Hutchins’ widower, Matthew, serving as executive producer.
What is the definition of involuntary manslaughter?
Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed, who was in charge of ensuring that the weapons used on the set of “Rust” did not cause any harm, were charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter: one for underlying negligence and the other for more than simple negligence in Hutchins’ death.
Both charges are felonies in the fourth degree, punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. The latter charge also includes a firearm enhancement penalty, which carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence.
“Involuntary manslaughter is the lowest criminal charge that can be used to hold someone accountable for the death of another person,” says Joshua Ritter, a criminal defence attorney and partner at El Dabe Ritter Trial Lawyers in Los Angeles. “Even if someone is acting lawfully, if that action has the potential to kill someone else without due caution, you can be held criminally liable.”
Will Alec Baldwin be arrested?
It’s possible, but legal experts are sceptical. Baldwin, in particular, would face prison time. According to Ritter, Baldwin has already settled the suit brought by Hutchins’ husband, who, in his new role as a “Rust” producer, is unlikely to assist New Mexico prosecutors in their aggressive pursuit of the film’s star.
“I’d be surprised if anyone got custody time for this,” he says. “Probation, community service, fines, fees, and safety messaging are all possibilities. But putting Baldwin in jail for what is still widely acknowledged to be a horrific accident would be excessive.”
Nonetheless, Baldwin is clearly the target of New Mexico prosecutors, according to Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and the president of West Coast Trial Lawyers in Los Angeles.
“This is a very aggressive charging decision,” he says, noting that New Mexico lawmakers allotted $317,000 to prosecutors working on the “Rust” case last fall to allow them to continue the costly process of charging. “You never bark unless you’re prepared to bite.”
Will Hannah Gutierrez-Reed be arrested?
It was Gutierrez-responsibility Reed’s to ensure that the “Rust” guns were not loaded with live ammunition. However, a live round made its way into the chamber of Baldwin’s gun, which was handed to the actor by assistant director David Halls, who exclaimed, “Cold gun!” indicating that it did not contain live ammunition.
Experts say Gutierrez-Reed could be found liable for the accident if it is determined she did not keep her safe set.
“She was the armourer, it happened on her watch,” says Miguel Custodio, a Los Angeles-based personal injury attorney and partner with Custodio & Dubey.
Why wasn’t assistant director David Halls charged with anything during the shoot?
At the tragic rehearsal, Halls handed the gun to Baldwin; his responsibilities included ensuring the gun did not have a live round, which it did.
In theory, Halls would be just as responsible for the accident as Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed. Prosecutors, on the other hand, announced on Thursday that they had reached a plea agreement with Halls that included a suspended sentence and six months of probation.
“Halls is the game changer,” Custodio says, implying that prosecutors intend to use what he knows as they pursue charges against the actor and armourer.
“It’s a safe bet that if Halls accepts a plea, he’ll be assisting the prosecution,” Ritter says. “There’s a good chance that both Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed were offered plea bargains, but they refused. Don’t be surprised if they both agree to something later on.”
Would Alec Baldwin have been charged if he had only played a minor role in the film?
Perhaps not. Hollywood film sets have a strict protocol for handling firearms, which typically involves multiple people, beginning with the set armourer. Weapons are supposed to be checked and re-checked before being handed to an actor, who is unlikely to be a weapons expert.
“Your job is to act, and worrying about whether a gun is loaded will interfere with your ability to act,” Custodio says. “So, in my opinion, the charges against Alec are not about him as an actor, but about him as a producer. And there appears to be evidence that his arsenal was sloppy when it came to weapons.”
Ritter concurs. “I can’t imagine holding someone accountable if your only responsibility is to get word from an armourer that a weapon is safe so you can act,” he says. “Clearly, prosecutors believe there was a larger breakdown, and (Baldwin) was to blame.”