Several defense lawyers argued Thursday that prosecutors will have a hard time proving manslaughter charges in the death of “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
Mary Carmack-Altwies, the prosecutor overseeing the case, said Thursday that she will file involuntary manslaughter charges against actor Alec Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the film’s armorer.
To prove that charge under New Mexico law, prosecutors must show that both Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed displayed “criminal negligence.” That standard is higher than carelessness or inattention — and rather requires conduct that is “reckless, wanton or willful.”
In other words, it will not be enough to show that Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed failed to ensure that Baldwin’s Colt .45 contained no live rounds. They will also have to show that the defendants were aware of the danger and willfully disregarded it.
Defense lawyers contacted by Variety predicted that the state will have difficulty meeting that standard.
“I think it’s a big uphill battle,” said Nicholas Hart, a defense lawyer based in Albuquerque. “Both Alec Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez Reed had no idea there was live ammunition at this set… There’s nothing that’s been disclosed that in my view raises this to criminal negligence.”
Steve Aarons, a defense attorney in Santa Fe, agreed: “I think it’s quite a stretch for the prosecutor to convince a jury that it was more than mere negligence and that it was reckless disregard.”
For Baldwin in particular, his attorneys will be able to argue that he reasonably relied on others who are paid to make sure that sets are safe.
“There needs to be evidence that he was aware of the danger,” said Kate Mangels, an attorney in Los Angeles. “I haven’t seen evidence of his actual awareness.”
Others said that it is reasonable to bring charges, but that it will nevertheless be difficult to convince a jury to vote unanimously to convict.
“I think people are really hesitant to convict somebody on events that are not malicious,” said Jennifer Burrill, the president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
A breakdown of common questions and answers follows.
What are the charges?
Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed will each face two counts of involuntary manslaughter. The two charges are slight variations on the same basic allegation — that Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed acted with criminal negligence, causing the death of a human being.
One charge alleges that the defendants committed involuntary manslaughter during the “commission of an unlawful act not amounting to felony,” while the other charge alleges that they were engaged in “the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.”
The charges amount to two separate paths to the same outcome. They will be filed “in the alternative,” meaning that jurors will be have to decide which — if either — applies to the facts presented at trial.
Could they go to prison?
Yes. Involuntary manslaughter is a fourth-degree felony, the lowest level felony in New Mexico, which carries a maximum sentence of 18 months, plus a $5,000 fine.
Prosecutors added a “firearm enhancement,” alleging that a gun was used in the commission of the offense. That carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
If they were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and the enhancement were found true, Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed would face a sentence between five years and six and a half years.
Why is the firearm enhancement so much more severe than the underlying crime?
The Legislature has sought to crack down on gun crime by adding serious sentencing enhancements for crimes in which a gun is used or discharged. In this case, the law allows a five-year enhancement because a gun was fired allegedly in the commission of a felony.
Defense attorneys have sought to push back on such enhancements as “double jeopardy,” meaning that defendants are improperly being punished twice for the same offense. In this case, the defense could try to argue that the involuntary manslaughter charge and the firearm enhancement each refer to the same, single act, and that therefore the enhancement should be thrown out.
Was anyone else charged?
David Halls, the first assistant director, has agreed to plead guilty to “negligent use of a deadly weapon,” which is a misdemeanor. Halls has acknowledged that he did not check the gun fully before handing it to Baldwin.
The crime covers offenses including negligent handling of a weapon endangering someone else’s safety. The maximum sentence is six months in jail. Under the plea agreement, Halls is expected to get a suspended sentence and six months of probation. He has also agreed to testify against Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed.
Prosecutors did not file charges against Sarah Zachry, the propmaster who worked most closely with Gutierrez Reed, or Seth Kenney, the armorer who supplied guns and ammunition to the set. No charges were filed against the producers or the production, either, as prosecutors decided they could not prove any crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.
It’s still possible that other crew members, producers and the production could be held liable in civil court.
What are the next steps?
Carmack-Altwies must first file the charges, which she has said she will do by the end of the month. Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed will then make an “initial appearance,” similar to an arraignment. They can do so remotely.
Prosecutors must then show a judge at a preliminary hearing that there is enough evidence to take the case to trial. Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed would probably have to appear in court for that hearing. After that, it’s possible the case could be set for separate trials.