Alec Baldwin Charged with Involuntary Manslaughter

After a fatal shooting on the set of the western film Rust, there has been a push for stricter firearm safety measures and/or a shift towards more computer-generated imagery (“CGI”) on movie sets. Following the announcement earlier this year from the district attorney in Santa Fe, New Mexico prosecutors have formally charged actor and producer, Alec Baldwin, and the film’s head armourer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, each on January 31, 2023 with two counts of involuntary manslaughter for the death of cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, on January 31, 2023.

During a scene rehearsal in October 2021, a prop gun in the hands of Baldwin was discharged. The bullet hit both Hutchins, and the film’s director, Joel Souza – the former of which died thereafter while the latter was hospitalized due to injuries. Also involved in the incident was the assistant director, David Halls, who handed Baldwin the “cold gun”, meaning that the weapon was not meant to have live rounds. Given that the exchange of the firearm is uncontested, Halls pled guilty to a charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon under NM Stat § 30-7-4 (2018) and will receive six months of probation.

The family of Hutchins commenced a wrongful death civil lawsuit against the producers, including Baldwin, that has since been settled with an agreement for widower Matthew Hutchins to join the movie as an executive producer as the film resumes filming early this year. Baldwin also filed his own civil suit against several people involved in the supervision and handling of weapons on the Rust set. As for the injuries suffered by Souza, no charges for battery will be laid on Baldwin. Per NM Stat § 30-3-4 (2018), battery is an intentional tort, and prosecutors are not pursuing allegations that Baldwin intentionally fired the gun.

The two counts of involuntary manslaughter, which is unintentional homicide, will be “charged in the alternative”. This means that the jury’s decision is twofold; they must decide whether Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed are (1) guilty, and (2) under which charge. The first charge is for involuntary manslaughter, while the second is for involuntary manslaughter in the commission of a lawful act, whereby there was more than simple negligence. Under NM Stat § 30-2-3 (2018), involuntary manslaughter is considered to be a fourth-degree felony and punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. However, if convicted of the second charge, due to the firearm enhancement, there is a mandatory term of five years in jail. If this were a case tried in Canada, manslaughter and its sentencing provisions can be found pursuant to sections 234 and 236 of the Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, respectively.

The underlying question is who bears the responsibility of (i.e., who is liable for) checking the weapons on a movie set. The burden of proof in criminal matters, such as the case at bar, requires that the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin had an obligation to check the gun himself to ensure that it was not loaded, or that he acted without due care. Baldwin’s defence, therefore, is likely to argue that the onus is not on him as an actor to check the firearm and that the due diligence rests on the weapons specialists. In a statement previously made by his attorney, “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.” Gutierrez-Reed is in a different position as her obligations as the armourer are more clearly set out.

The case against Baldwin appears to be novel as there are no precedents for like-charges deriving from an unintentional fatal shooting on a movie set. Ultimately, these charges are meant to deter the film industry and film insurers from being too lax on movie sets when it comes to firearm safety, and to reiterate that the rule of law – that is, no one is above the law – still applies in such circumstances.

It comes with little surprise that going down the criminal legal system route is almost guaranteed to garner considerable publicity vis-à-vis Baldwin’s celebrity status. With initial court appearances to be held within 15 days of the charges being laid and an expected preliminary hearing to come, a fair trial may become difficult to achieve if potential jurors develop biases from press outlets and social media. Whether these charges represent a “miscarriage of justice”, however, remains to be seen.

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