Now that involuntary manslaughter charges have been filed against Alec Baldwin and set armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed in the October 2021 shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the indie film Rust, legal experts are weighing in about what comes next for both the case and the defendants.
The Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office announced two charges of involuntary manslaughter Thursday morning for Gutierrez Reed and Baldwin, who could face an 18-month prison sentence and a $5,000 fine. The actor, who was holding the prop gun that he says misfired and killed Hutchins, will also be charged with “an enhancement for the use of a firearm which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years,” per NPR. Meanwhile, Rust’s first assistant director David Halls, who loaded the gun, agreed to plead guilty to “negligent use of a deadly weapon.” Halls will serve no jail time but will be given six months of probation per the plea deal.
While Baldwin is staring down some difficult legal challenges, the prosecution may have even larger ones. James J. Brosnahan, Senior Of Counsel at the law firm of Morrison Foerster, tells The A.V. Club. Brosnahan was retained as lead trial counsel for the defense in the case involving Brandon Lee, who was shot and killed by a gun fired by actor Michael Masse on the set of The Crow in 1993.
In that case, Lee’s mother Linda filed a suit, not against Masse, but against the production company, producers, the directors, and others, per The Chicago Tribune, ultimately settling out of court. Had the case gone to trial, Brosnahan was to defend the studio against indictment based on the idea that corporations are not people.
“A corporation is an artificial entity,” Brosnahan said. “It really is, of course, not a person. And so when you’re going to indict somebody, my theory was there has to be at least one person in the corporation that has the negligent state of mind, which is essential to indict somebody for manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.”
Baldwin’s state of mind is critical to proving responsibility. For one thing, the prosecution would have to show why Alec Baldwin, an actor hired to fire what he purportedly believed were prop bullets, would do this.
“What you need in any criminal case is you need sort of a wrongful act, but then you also need some sort of mental state associated with it,” Kate Mangels, a criminal defense attorney and partner at the law firm of Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser, Kump, and Holley, told The A.V. Club. “In these sorts of accidental death cases, the defenses usually relate to whether or not the person had the mental state required.”
Proving the mental state of an actor can be tricky; after all, if Baldwin is playing a character that fires a gun in malice, how can that be stripped from his intent? The same could be said of someone under the influence of alcohol, Mangels said. “The awareness of risk and acting without regard for the risk would still be imputed on someone, even if they are acting.”
“He could be responsible if he was aware of some risk or danger. Even though he was aware of that risk, he acted without regard or due caution,” she continued. “Given what the public knows, it seems like this is a high hurdle for the prosecution to show his awareness.”
According to Brosnahan, the motive is another hurdle. “I tried criminal cases, both for the prosecution and for the defense for many years,” he said. “You’ve got to have a motive. For negligence, you can argue a theoretical case that he was negligent. Why would he do it?”
Brosnahan says it would be up to the jury to decide whether or not he acted appropriately. Still, he believes there’s nothing in Baldwin’s background to show that he would purposely point a gun and fire at a person if he knew there were bullets inside the gun. “Therefore, the question is, should it have occurred to him? And the answer would be no if he thought he was holding a gun that only has blanks.”
However, it’s important to remember that Baldwin’s role extended beyond that of an actor. He was also a producer, and that could add complications. “Sometimes the credit is simply a vanity title to boost an actor’s sense of involvement in a project,” writes the Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes it is a way to defer upfront fees to a performer in favor of back-end payments. And sometimes an actor is so deeply involved with a project that the credit is a way to make official their added influence along the way.”
The ambiguity of the title has made the prosecution’s case murkier, as they will have to show the expectations the production had from Baldwin as a producer. If it was a vanity title, that could work toward Baldwin’s defense in court.
In the months following the shooting, safety on the Rust set has been the subject of intense scrutiny. “In the DA’s statement, she said other actors say there are certain precautions they take, like firing off a practice round or checking whether the gun is loaded or isn’t loaded with whatever the dummy bullet is versus the actual bullet,” Mangels said. “It doesn’t appear that he knew there was an actual bullet in this gun.”
It seems unlikely that Baldwin will serve any prison time for the accident. However, Mangels notes that the first assistant director took a plea deal with a reduced sentence, and that sort of deal could be open to Baldwin.
For now, Mangels thinks it’s “unadvisable” (her diplomatic words) for Baldwin to keep making public statements. He already complicated his defense by saying he never actually pulled the trigger on the gun. If he didn’t pull the trigger, the prosecution would not be able to prove causation because “the causation would be a faulty gun,” for which Baldwin isn’t responsible. “If there’s proof that he pulled the trigger,” Mangels said, “then one part of the two-part test for whether he is guilty of manslaughter is satisfied, which is he took some action that caused the death of someone else.”
The trigger question does make things a bit hairier for Baldwin. “I know of no way you can fire a blank without pulling the trigger,” Brosnahan said.
“I don’t see Mr. Baldwin pleading guilty to this,” he added. “Look at it from the defendant’s standpoint; he is a famous man and a movie actor of considerable talent and has been for years. Let’s assume that he would like to have more, more roles and things. The nature of the crime is that there’s no bank robbery here. The atmosphere of the case, and if his lawyer marshals the mood of the case, is this a terrible accident. That’s what I think. Things happen. I can almost hear the good defense lawyer arguing that you know, things happen in the world. Things happen. It doesn’t mean anybody is guilty of anything.”