just asking questions

Could Alec Baldwin Really Go to Prison for the Rust Killing?

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In October 2021, Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a prop gun on the set of the small-budget western Rust. Several weeks ago, in a decision that surprised many observers, New Mexico prosecutors announced they would charge Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter along with the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. Baldwin has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors say Baldwin was distracted during firearms training, didn’t need to point the gun at or near Hutchins, and failed in his responsibility as a producer of the film to maintain a safe atmosphere. But some experts believe the charges against Baldwin are flimsy given that others on set were directly responsible for the gun he was handed. The charges have set off alarm bells in Hollywood, where film-industry figures worry about the ramifications of a guilty verdict. I spoke with Joshua Ritter, a criminal-defense attorney and former prosecutor with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, about the strength of the case against Baldwin and the likelihood the case goes to trial.

Last week, New Mexico prosecutors downgraded the charges against Alec Baldwin after his lawyers pointed out that a firearms-enhancement law included wasn’t on the books until May 2022, seven months after Halyna Hutchins’s death. Do you think this development weakens the state’s overall case?
I think it’ll have a significant effect on the power dynamic between Baldwin’s team and the New Mexico DA when it comes to plea negotiation. As far as proving the case at trial, it doesn’t change much because the allegation just asks the question of whether or not a firearm was used, which is something no one disputes in this case. So it doesn’t change the dynamics of what prosecutors would have to prove or what Baldwin would have to defend against as much as it changes the exposure he had and, therefore, the kind of crucible he would experience if he decided to go to trial.

And that’s where it’s going to have the most significant effect because 18 months is nothing to sneeze at, and that’s what he’s still looking at. But that’s not a mandatory sentence. So even if Baldwin were found guilty, the judge could decide to put him on probation. Whereas with the weapons-use allegation, my understanding is it would be a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, which may have tied the judge’s hands. This was something weighing heavily on Baldwin’s mind, I’m sure — him and his team’s. But now that it’s off the table, I think they’re in a far more evenly postured position with the DA’s office to negotiate how to plead this thing out, which is how I believe it will eventually conclude.

I had thought that Baldwin’s lawyers seemed comfortable with the case going to trial because they thought the case against him was so weak. But you’re saying differently.
Listen, I don’t think the prosecution has a very strong case, but at the same time, juries do crazy things and they’re unpredictable. And I don’t think you ever want to go in front of a jury that could put you into custody if there’s a chance you can avoid that by entering into a plea negotiation.

I do believe that if this does end up in a plea, it will be something that both Baldwin’s team and the DA can spin into a win. I would be surprised if Baldwin actually pled to a manslaughter charge, but I could see him pleading to some lesser charge of perhaps negligent handling of a firearm or something like that, where he can say, “I decided to put an end to this and take responsibility for mistakes that were made, but I’m not saying I’m responsible for her death.” And at the same time, the DA’s office could spin it and say, “We’ve held people responsible for this tragedy.”

Presumably the Baldwin team wouldn’t plead to something that involved any prison time.
I can’t see that happening. I really can’t. If the DA’s office refuses to offer him anything without custody, I could see this going to trial.

If it does go that far, what do prosecutors actually need to prove to get a conviction against Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who both face the same involuntary-manslaughter charges?
This is a bizarre case in that nobody is going to argue that anyone intended to cause harm or to cause her death. So you’re dealing with a case where you’re trying to hold someone criminally responsible but not actually trying to show any sort of criminal intent. The way they get around that is the law in New Mexico says involuntary manslaughter can include “a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.” So, in this case, no one is trying to say that rehearsing a movie scene is somehow inherently illegal. But basically what it says is, even if you’re doing something legal that could lead to someone’s death and you’re doing it without due circumspection, they can imply this criminal intent upon your actions. That’s a really thin needle to thread because they’ve got to convince jurors that the defendants were acting outside of what we would deem to be reasonable under the circumstances.

Alec Baldwin has a built-in defense with the idea that “Listen, I’m on a movie set. Of course everyone’s going to assume that the gun that’s being handed to me is either fake, or unloaded, or loaded with dummy rounds.” I imagine he’s been handed guns on movie sets dozens and dozens of times and never had an issue until this one instance. And so they have to try to say, “Even though all of that is true, you still had the audit obligation of checking yourself to make sure that that weapon was safe.” Now, maybe that’s part of the protocols on a movie set, but you’re going to have to convince jurors that he was acting outside of those bounds of reasonableness when he didn’t personally inspect the weapon himself.

Baldwin is a producer on Rust, not just an actor. And that adds a wrinkle, right? Because he’s supposed to have some oversight capacity, too.
Yeah. And I think that probably works more in the civil case than it does in the criminal case. I suppose they could say that, as a producer, he had added obligations to make sure that all safety protocols were being followed. I think that’s a very difficult argument to make.

I think what might be their strongest point is that the assistant director, Dave Halls, has already accepted a plea deal, and he’s the person who’s alleged to have handed the weapon directly to Baldwin. Baldwin says that when he received the weapon, he was told it was safe, or “cold.” If the assistant director is going to testify otherwise, that could be very problematic for Baldwin. I don’t know if that’s what he’s going to say, but it’s interesting to me that the one person who has pleaded out here is the middleman between the armorer and Baldwin.

Would you agree that the case against Gutierrez-Reed seems much stronger than the one against Baldwin?
I do agree, at least to the extent of who had the responsibility to make sure the gun was safe — you would expect that to be the armorer, not the actor. But I’ve heard that there is some sort of protocol on a set that an actor should not receive a weapon that he doesn’t actually see inspected by the armorer and that the armorer should hand it directly to him.

Yeah, they mentioned that in the charging documents against Baldwin. And another point they make is that he pointed a gun at someone even though he wasn’t 100 percent sure it was unloaded. You’re not supposed to point a gun at someone, period — that’s gun safety 101.
And I agree with that. If we were in any other setting but a movie setting, I would say it’s irresponsible to point a gun at anybody even if you know it’s unloaded. But on a movie set, sometimes guns are being pointed at people in rehearsals and everything else. And, in this case, it sounds like what they wanted was the gun pointed directly at the camera, where the cinematographer was seated. So maybe there’s an argument to be made about whether or not an actual gun should have been used for that scene at all. Maybe if you’re pointing a gun at people, you shouldn’t be using a gun that can fire a bullet in any respect. Baldwin has a robust defense, but he’s got some problems with the statements he’s made, like saying that he didn’t pull the trigger.

And weapons experts have said it’s impossible to fire this weapon without pulling the trigger. To what extent do you think he’s hurt himself with comments like that?
He’s hurt himself in that now there already seems to be a provably false statement he has made. Now, does that mean that he should be held guilty for involuntary manslaughter? Not necessarily, but this is why it’s never a good idea to start talking to people when you’re under criminal investigation. Who knows what avenues your defense attorneys need to keep open down the line, which you may be precluding them from arguing because you’re too busy doing a PR campaign?

The consensus seems to be that the case against Baldwin is fairly weak. In your view, do you think his celebrity has something to do with the fact that they brought these charges at all? Is there a bit of bravado coming from the prosecutor’s office?
I would not have thought that originally, but they’ve taken some steps that makes me think maybe they’re in a little bit over their heads. Because initially they didn’t have any kind of knee-jerk reaction to anything and they said they were going to investigate things thoroughly. And they did. I think the investigation went on for over a year. They brought in the FBI, and they brought in a special prosecutor, and they did all the right things you would expect them to do if they’re going to take a case like this very seriously.

But then the media blitz they went on — where they announced they were going to bring charges and then did a bunch of interviews, and now this misstep, charging him with a crime they don’t have a legal basis for charging him with — are these the mistakes of an overwhelmed prosecutor’s office or an overzealous prosecutor’s office? It may be that they think “everybody’s watching us, and we’re not going to let some Hollywood celebrity get away with this, not in our small town.” I hope that that’s not true, but it does seem they’ve been fairly aggressive in their handling of this since their decision to bring charges.

A spokeswoman for the DA called Baldwin’s lawyers “big-city attorneys.” They seem to be taking a certain tone.
It’s like they’re blaming his lawyers for being litigious. As a defense attorney, I’m never going to apologize for the arguments I make on behalf of my client. You’re the one trying to put him in prison. I’m going to do everything I can to defend this man. And for them to try to say, “We’re going to go ahead and dismiss this allegation because we don’t want to put up with more of their motions” — it seems like a lot of weak tea, in my view.

Do you think a plea deal for Gutierrez-Reed is less likely?
She’s similarly positioned with him, as far as her exposure, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if they somehow wanted to hold her to a greater responsibility than him because, as we discussed, she’s probably the person most responsible for that weapon being safe. And with jail time on the table, maybe they try to save face by getting some sort of custody time out of her.

Do you have any sense of when a plea deal for Baldwin might come together?
I think you would expect there to be some time for them to take a look at the evidence. There appears to have been a significant amount of investigation done, and so you would expect his team to go through that thoroughly. But, at the same time, if they’re able to strike a deal that, like I said, satisfies probably what are their biggest wants — one being no custody time and, two, it being something less than a manslaughter-type charge — I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a resolution to this within the next few weeks. But then again, if they can’t come to a meeting of the minds and the DA’s office has now dug their heels in, this thing may head to a trial, and it could take several months to get there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could Alec Baldwin Really Go to Prison for the Rust Killing?