Charges have been brought against Alec Baldwin stemming from the October 2021 fatal shooting that occurred on the set of his movie, Rust. I’ve enjoyed certain Alec Baldwin movies over the years, though I would not call myself a fan. I agree with his anti-Trump politics but did not especially care for his portrayal of Trump on various Saturday Night Live skits. In other words, I am not an Alec Baldwin apologist.
The tragedy on the set of Rust was unfortunate and avoidable. Why were live ammunition rounds present on a movie set and who was responsible for them being in proximity with a prop gun? I have seen no evidence put forth that would suggest that person was Alec Baldwin.
Based upon my admittedly cursory review of New Mexico criminal statutes, the state does not seem to have a “negligent homicide” statute. The charges are premised on a 2018 Manslaughter statute, Section 30-2-3 (B) which states:
Involuntary manslaughter 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.
Obviously, prosecutors are basing their decision to charge on the “without due caution and circumspection” language. This is a fourth degree felony charge and carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison. For lack of a better way to explain this, under New Mexico law, this is the least serious homicide charge a prosecutor can bring. But why bring charges at all?
Was someone negligent on the set of Rust? Undoubtedly. Could the fourth degree charge be sustained against that someone? Yes. Was that person Alec Baldwin? That’s a more difficult question to answer.
As I understand things, this was Baldwin’s movie. He was not only an actor, he had executive producer status. He was the man in charge. He is also the one who picked up the gun and shot it, not knowing it contained live ammunition. Are those two undeniable facts enough to convict him of manslaughter? I don’t think so.
In my opinion, if prosecutors wish to convict someone of manslaughter in this case, they must determine who was responsible for bringing live rounds onto the set, why the rounds were present, and who was responsible for assuring the safety of the firearm involved. If the charge is based upon a general lack of coordination or protocol about firearm safety, while enough for civil liability, I don’t believe it will sustain a conviction for involuntary manslaughter.
Typically, involuntary manslaughter (or negligent homicide in other states) occurs when a person or persons engages in a lawful act but unintentionally kills someone by being negligent or not exercising due care. Someone’s negligence on the set of Rust might rise to the level of involuntary manslaughter under New Mexico law. But, in my view, prosecutors have a long way to go (unless they have evidence they have not disclosed to the public) to prove these charges against anyone, let alone Alec Baldwin. The ultimate question in my mind is why in the world would Baldwin or any other actor ever expect a prop gun to be loaded with live ammunition? Prosecutors seem to be looking for a statute in search of a crime rather than a crime in search of a statute.
You may be asking: Why did Rust execs, including Baldwin, pay out substantial wrongful death proceeds to the victim’s survivors? Doesn’t that prove that Baldwin and others are guilty? That burden of proof in a civil case is “preponderance of the evidence” or some amount of negligence that exceeds 50%. In a criminal case, the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt” which is considerably higher. The civil settlement is meaningless in a criminal context.
Were normal safety procedures followed on the set of Rust? Were Hollywood safety standards or protocol breached? Were best practices for television and movie productions violated? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” there may be cause for the criminal charge, but, again, who was the person or persons responsible for these breaches?
These standards and guidelines resulted from other high-profile tragedies including the on-set shooting deaths of actors Brandon Lee in 1993 and Jon-Erik Hexum in 1984. According to these safety protocols, the armorer is the ultimate responsibility for weapons on the set—that person’s job is to assure that there are no live rounds.
According to a search warrant affidavit in the case, assistant director Dave Halls handed Baldwin the gun, after picking it up from a rolling cart prepared by the armorer, Hanna Gutierrez-Reed. Halls shouted “cold gun” indicating it was not loaded and safe to handle. Protocol requires multiple checks and rechecks. Apparently, Gutierrez-Reed has also been charged under the same New Mexico statute—Halls has not been charged. My questions are these: Why is there live ammunition anywhere near these prop guns? For what purpose? Whoever can be linked to its presence on the set, that person is in criminal jeopardy. I doubt that person is Alec Baldwin.
This shooting was a terrible accident. Some people may have acted negligently. Civil damages have been paid. Lessons have been learned. Safety measures have been improved. What is accomplished by charging any of the three people who handled the gun?
Mark M. Bello is an attorney and author of the Zachary Blake Legal Thriller Series and children’s social justice/safety picture books. He also hosts the popular bi-weekly podcast, Justice Counts. Mark’s books may be found at all online booksellers and on his website, at www.markmbello.com.
Article By Mark M. Bello