Why Prosecutors Charged Alec Baldwin With Involuntary Manslaughter

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Updated: | Originally published:

Alec Baldwin faces involuntary manslaughter charges in the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set of the movie Rust in October 2021.

He could face at least five years in prison if a jury finds that the actions that led to Hutchins’ death were more than simple negligence.

On Jan. 31, charges of involuntary manslaughter were filed against Baldwin and the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who was in charge of overseeing weapons on the set. New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies and Rust Special Prosecutor Andrea Reeb first announced the decision to press charges on Jan. 19 in a written statement posted to the District Attorney’s official social media accounts.

The film’s first assistant director, Dave Halls, who handed Baldwin the loaded gun, agreed to plead guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon.

“If any one of these three people—Alec Baldwin, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed or David Halls—had done their job, Halyna Hutchins would be alive today. It’s that simple,” said Reeb, the special prosecutor appointed by the DA to the case, in a statement. “The evidence clearly shows a pattern of criminal disregard for safety on the Rust film set. In New Mexico, there is no room for film sets that don’t take our state’s commitment to gun safety and public safety seriously.”

Alec Baldwin Set Shooting
The movie set of "Rust" at Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 23, 2021.Jae C. Hong—AP

An attorney for Baldwin, Luke Nikas, criticized the charges in a statement on Jan. 19: “This decision distorts Halyna Hutchins’s tragic death and represents a terrible miscarriage of justice. 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. We will fight these charges, and we will win.”

Why was Baldwin charged?

According to the Jan. 19 statement, Baldwin, who was also a producer on the film, and Gutierrez-Reed would each be charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Hutchins. The first charge is for involuntary manslaughter, which requires proof of underlying negligence. The second charge is for involuntary manslaughter in the commission of a lawful act, which requires proof that there was more than simple negligence involved in a death.

In New Mexico, involuntary manslaughter in the commission of a lawful act is used to hold people accountable for doing things that “an ordinary prudent adult would know better than to do,” says University of New Mexico law professor Joshua Kastenberg. That includes not “point[ing] a gun at somebody else unless you’re absolutely sure it’s unloaded and safe.”

Prop Firearm Shooting
Image courtesy of Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office shows Alec Baldwin talking with investigators following a fatal shooting.Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office/AP

Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed will be “charged in the alternative” with both counts, which happens when the charges are each of the same severity. This means that a jury would decide not only if they were guilty, but under which definition of involuntary manslaughter they were guilty. They can only be found guilty of one charge.

What does “involuntary manslaughter” mean?

Involuntary manslaughter in New Mexico consists of “manslaughter committed in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to felony, or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.”

Under New Mexico law, involuntary manslaughter is a fourth-degree felony and is punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

However, if convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the commission of a lawful act, there will be a “sentencing enhancement” because the manslaughter was committed with a firearm. Under New Mexico law, that carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence.

Kastenberg says that part of that five-year sentence can be abated by a judge if the accused are found guilty, but it’s unlikely Baldwin or Gutierrez-Reed will have to spend that much time in jail.

Kastenberg adds that it won’t be enough for Baldwin’s defense to argue that he did not know that the gun was loaded. Instead, the jury will have to decide if Baldwin should have taken steps to ensure it was unloaded.

For Gutierrez-Reed, the charge means that she may not have fired the gun, but could still be found culpably negligent for handing over a prop that led to Hutchins’ death.

What happened on the set of Rust?

Hutchins, who was 42, was killed on Oct. 25, 2021, when Baldwin discharged a prop firearm on the Rust set while rehearsing a scene in which he pointed a revolver at the camera, which was held by Hutchins. The gun went off, hitting Hutchins in the chest and director Joel Souza in the shoulder.

Hutchins was flown to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she died. Souza was taken to Christus St. Vincent’s Regional Medical Center for treatment for his injuries.

A final report from the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, which was delivered to prosecutors in October, included interviews from some of the film’s crew members in which they claimed there had been a lack of consistent meetings devoted to on-set safety, the New York Times reports.

Handout photo of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins
Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.Swen Studios/Handout/Reuters

The night before the shooting, the film’s A-camera first assistant, Lane Luper, resigned from the production, stating in an email to others working on set that the filming of gunfight scenes had been “fast and loose.”

“So far there have been 2 accidental weapons discharges and 1 accidental SFX explosives that have gone off around the crew between takes… To be clear there are NO safety meetings these days,” Luper said in the email. “There have been NO explanations as to what to expect for these shots. When anyone from production is asked we are usually met with the same answers about not having enough time to complete the day if we rehearse or that ‘this is a 21 day shoot.’”

What has Alec Baldwin said?

Baldwin addressed the incident on Twitter the day after the shooting, writing: “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours. I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family. My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”

Baldwin later placed the blame for the fatal shooting on members of the Rust crew. “Someone put a live bullet in a gun, a bullet that wasn’t even supposed to be on the property,” he said in a December 2021 interview with ABC News. “Someone is ​responsible for what happened, and I can’t say who that is, but I know it’s not me.”

Baldwin told CNN in August 2022 that he didn’t believe he or anyone else would face criminal charges in the shooting and that the incident “has taken years off” his life.

He also placed responsibility for Hutchins’ death on Gutierrez-Reed and Halls. “There are two people who didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” he said. “I’m not sitting there saying I want them to, you know, go to prison, or I want their lives to be hell. I don’t want that, but I want everybody to know that those are the two people that are responsible for what happened.”

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com