New Mexico authorities have charged Alec Baldwin with the crime of Involuntary Manslaughter after he accidentally shot and killed 42 year old Halyna Hutchins on the movie set of a Western titled “Rust”.
How Could Someone Get Shot and Killed on a Movie Set?
In October 2021, Alec Baldwin was a lead Actor and a Producer and Halyna Hutchins was a Cinematographer on the set of a Western-style movie, “Rust”, that was filming in New Mexico.
During rehearsals, a tragedy occurred in which Baldwin accidentally shot and killed Hutchins and injured another production employee when a prop pistol was improperly loaded with a live bullet, rather than a “dummy” round, and Baldwin pointed the gun and pulled the trigger.
The cardinal rule for movie sets involving weapons is that live bullets should never be on set. However, eal guns are often used and must be loaded with something in order to appear authentic. In such situations, real guns are either loaded with blanks that will make sound when fired or “dummy” rounds which are fake and should not fire.
On the day of the shooting, Baldwin was rehearsing drawing and firing a Colt .45 pistol and was working directly in front of the camera. Hutchins was the Cinematographer working the scene and was standing next to the camera person with the film’s Director, Joel Souza, behind her.
The film’s Armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, had given Baldwin the Colt .45 pistol earlier in the day and told him that the gun was “cold”, meaning that it was loaded with “dummies” and should not fire.
Immediately before the shooting, Baldwin was practicing drawing the gun and aiming it at the camera. Unfortunately, Hutchins and Director Joel Souza were just a few feet away and directly in the line of fire. Baldwin claims that the pistol was cocked for the rehearsal but that he never pulled the trigger. Nevertheless, during the fateful draw, when Baldwin pointed the gun directly at Hutchins, it discharged a live round that struck Hutchins, penetrated her chest and exited through her back. The bullet then struck and lodged in Souza’s shoulder. Tragically, Hutchins died from her wounds. Fortunately, Souza recovered.
Since the shooting, Baldwin has remained steadfast in denying that he pulled the trigger of the pistol. However, the FBI performed extensive testing on the gun after the incident and concluded that the gun would not fire unless the trigger was pulled.
Who is at Fault?
There are multiple people who can be blamed for this tragedy. The primary bad actor appears to be the Armorer, Gutierrez-Reed, who inexplicably allowed a live bullet to be present on set and loaded into a gun that was used in the rehearsal. This is negligent if not reckless conduct. Like Baldwin, Gutierrez-Reed has been charged with Involuntary Manslaughter.
However, It can also be argued that Baldwin bears some responsibility. Baldwin is an experienced Actor and Producer. He knew he had a real gun in his hand, so why was he drawing it and pointing it at people? Importantly, the FBI investigation determined that the gun would not fire unless the trigger was pulled. So, assuming that the FBI is correct, why did Baldwin pull the trigger of a real gun while pointing it directly at Hutchins?
Notably, there were reports of other accidental discharges from guns on this set before Hutchins was killed which indicates that everyone on the set should have been aware of the danger and acting more vigilantly to prevent injuries. There were also some disputes with employees and resignations before the shooting, leading to conspiracy theories that some disgruntled former employee may have intentionally armed the pistol with a live round.
Why Was Baldwin Charged?
When an accident happens that results in a death, two legal proceedings can occur. The family can bring a Wrongful Death Civil Lawsuit for compensation by alleging the the death was caused by Negligence. This has already occurred and the case was settled out-of-court. At the same time, the local authorities can decide to pursue Criminal Charges to punish the wrongdoers with fines and/or jail time.
Under New Mexico law, Involuntary Manslaughter is causing Death while ”in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.”
Involuntary manslaughter is a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a fine of $5,000. However, because a firearm was involved in this incident, there could be an enhancement of the punishment which carries a 5 year prison sentence.
The real question in the criminal trial for Baldwin will be regarding the issue of Negligence. Obviously, Baldwin did not intend to shoot Hutchins. That doesn’t end the inquiry though. This crucial issue is whether a prudent person would have been more cautious than he was. If Baldwin was Negligent, then he could be held criminally liable.
In my view, Baldwin has a real risk of being convicted in that it’s hard to say he was being careful when he drew a real Colt .45, pointed it at someone who was just a few feet away and pulled the trigger. It’s also troubling that it appears there were some live rounds discharged on the set earlier, which would put Baldwin on notice of the danger and should have caused him to be more careful and less confident that all of the guns were armed with only “dummy rounds”. I also think it will be difficult to believe that Baldwin did not pull the trigger since FBI witnesses will testify that they tested the gun and it would only fire if the trigger was pulled.
Baldwin and his legal team have expressed sadness and remorse for the incident and Hutchins’ death, but have steadfastly denied responsibility by claiming that Baldwin had the right to rely on the Armorer to do her job to make sure the gun was loaded with “dummies” and that he did not pull the trigger. Baldwin has also stated in texts to Hutchins’ husband that he has concerns that perhaps the gun was tampered with and intentionally armed with a live round.
After the charges were announced, Baldwin’s legal team released a statement saying that he had no reason to believe that there were live rounds in the gun or anywhere on the set and that they would “fight the charges and win.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the Jury to decide on the Negligence issue and determine whether anyone should be held criminally responsible. On the civil law side, Wrongful Death lawsuit against Baldwin and others has been settled out of court. Overall, this was a terrible and preventable tragedy that, hopefully, will send a message to the movie making industry that safety on set must be priority number one.
Tim Rayne is a Pennsylvania Personal Injury lawyer with the Chester County firm MacElree Harvey. For over 25 years, Tim has been helping accident victims understand their legal rights and receive fair treatment from Insurance Companies. Tim can be reached at 610-840-0124 or [email protected] or you can check out his website at www.TimRayneLaw.com.