Several defense lawyers argued Thursday that prosecutors will have a tough time proving the manslaughter charge in the death of “Rusty” cinematographer Halina Hutchins.
Prosecutor Mary Carmack-Altwijs, who oversaw the case, said Thursday that she will file involuntary manslaughter charges against actor Alec Baldwin and the film’s gunman, Hannah Gutierrez Reed.
To prove the charges under New Mexico law, prosecutors must show that both Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reid exhibited “criminal negligence.” This standard is higher than carelessness or recklessness — and instead requires conduct that is “reckless, wanton or willful.”
In other words, it would not be enough to show that Baldwin and Gutierrez failed to ensure that Reed did not have any live rounds in Baldwin’s Colt .45. They must also show that the defendants were aware of the danger and willfully ignored it.
Communications by defense attorneys diversity predicted that the state would have difficulty meeting that standard.
“I think it’s a big uphill battle,” said Nicholas Hart, a defense attorney in Albuquerque. “Both Alec Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez Reed had no idea that this set contained live ammunition… Nothing was disclosed that in my view raises this for criminal negligence.”
Steve Aarons, a defense attorney in Santa Fe, agreed: “I think it’s up to the prosecutor to convince a jury that this was more than mere negligence and that it was reckless negligence.”
For Baldwin in particular, his attorneys will be able to argue that he reasonably relied on others who paid him to make sure the sets were safe.
“There needs to be proof that he was aware of the danger,” said Kate Mangels, an attorney in Los Angeles. “I saw no evidence of his actual awareness.”
Others said that the indictment was reasonable, but that it would still be difficult to convince a jury to vote unanimously to convict.
“I think people are really hesitant to convict someone for something that’s not malicious,” said Jennifer Burrill, president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
A breakdown of common questions and answers follows.
What is the complaint?
Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed will each face two counts of involuntary manslaughter. The two charges are slight variations on the same basic charge — that Baldwin and Gutierrez Reid acted with criminal negligence, resulting in the death of a human being.
One charge alleges that the defendants committed manslaughter during “the commission of an unlawful act which is not felony”, while the other alleges that they were “engaged in the commission of a lawful act which by unlawful means may cause death. Due precautions and warning.”
The amount of charge is two different paths to the same result. They will be filed “in the alternative,” meaning jurors must decide which – if any – apply to the facts presented at trial.
Can they go to jail?
Yes. Involuntary manslaughter is a fourth-degree felony, the lowest-level felony in New Mexico, with a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Prosecutors added a “firearms enhancement” and alleged that a gun was used in the commission of the crime. which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
If they are convicted of involuntary manslaughter and the enhancements are found to be true, Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed face between five and six-and-a-half years in prison.
Why is the increase in firearms so much more serious than the underlying crime?
The Legislature has tried to crack down on gun crime by adding serious penalty enhancements to crimes that involve the use or discharge of a gun. In this case, the statute allows for a five-year extension because a felony charge was fired from a gun.
Defense attorneys have tried to push back against improvements such as “double jeopardy,” meaning defendants are being improperly punished twice for the same crime. In this case, the defense may try to argue that the involuntary manslaughter charge and the firearm enhancement each refer to the same, single act, and therefore the enhancement should be thrown out.
Was anyone else accused?
David Halls, the first assistant director, agreed to plead guilty to “negligent use of a deadly weapon,” a misdemeanor. Halls admitted he did not fully inspect the gun before handing it to Baldwin.
The offense covers offenses including negligent handling of a weapon endangering the safety of another. The maximum sentence is six months imprisonment. Under the plea agreement, Hall is expected to receive a suspended sentence and six months of probation. He also agreed to testify against Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed.
Prosecutors did not file charges against Sarah Zachary, who worked most closely with Gutierrez Reed, or Seth Kenny, the armorer who supplied guns and ammunition to the set. No charges were filed against the producer or the production, as prosecutors decided they could not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
It is still possible that other crew members, producers and production could be held liable in civil court.
What is the next step?
Carmack-Altwies must first file charges, which she said she will do by the end of the month. Baldwin and Gutierrez Reid will then make an “initial appearance,” similar to an arraignment. They can do so remotely.
Prosecutors must show a judge at a preliminary hearing that there is enough evidence to take the case to trial. Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reid are likely to appear in court for that hearing. After that, the case can be set for separate trial.