Why Alec Baldwin could face charges even if the “Rust” shooting was accidental

An ongoing investigation.
An ongoing investigation.
Image: REUTERS/Adria Malcolm
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Criminal charges had not been ruled out for the investigation into the fatal shooting on the set of Rust, a Western whose star Alec Baldwin killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins after firing a gun on set, Santa Fe County sheriff Adan Mendoza said today (Oct. 27). Assistant director Dave Halls reportedly told Baldwin the revolver was “cold,” meaning it did not have live rounds, before he shot Hutchins and director Joel Souza, who survived.

The sheriff’s office, along with district attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, is now investigating how this happened. Live ammunition is strictly prohibited on movie sets, and both Halls and the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, were responsible for ensuring the proper, safe handling of weapons. Baldwin was also a producer on the set of the film, whose crew members had voiced concerns about unsafe working conditions in the days leading up to the tragedy.

“All options are on the table at this point,” Carmach-Altwies said of the ongoing investigation at today’s press conference. “No one has been ruled out.”

Reports of unsafe working conditions, live rounds on set

Crew members working on Rust walked off the set hours before Hutchins was shot to protest unsafe conditions, according to the Los Angeles Times. A previous incident involving firearms occurred the Saturday before the fatal shooting, when Baldwin’s stunt double fired live rounds after being mistakenly told they were cold.

Halls, the assistant director, had previously been the subject of complaints over his handling of safety protocols. He was fired from his job on the film Freedom’s Path after a gun unexpectedly discharged on set and injured a crew member. Crew members allegedly took prop guns to shoot at beer cans with live ammunition earlier in the day before Hutchins was killed, a source told The Wrap.

Mendoza said in the press conference today that the sheriff’s office recovered a lead projectile fired from the gun, and the “facts were clear” Baldwin was given a weapon loaded with a live round.

“That changes the dynamics of the criminal case,” said Stuart Fraenkel, a Los Angeles lawyer who has represented clients in death and injury cases, most recently the stuntwoman Olivia Jackson. “Rounds should never be in [a prop gun]. That was shocking and surprising to me.”

Prior to her death Hutchins had posted on Instagram in support of crew members represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), who had threatened to strike over concerns about unsafe working conditions.

Could Alec Baldwin face criminal charges?

Much remains unknown about how exactly a live projectile was loaded into the gun Baldwin fired, but Fraenkel said as the investigation unfolds he expects the DA’s office to look at each person involved with the film individually to determine if there is evidence to prove their actions constituted manslaughter, whether voluntary or involuntary.

Baldwin is no exception, Fraenkel said, as he not only fired the shot, but was a producer on the film who may have borne some responsibility for overseeing safety practices and procedures for the production. The actor was one of five producers listed on a call sheet obtained by the Los Angeles Times, but it is unclear exactly what that role meant for him. Sometimes actors are deeply involved as producers, while other times it’s simply considered a vanity title.

“There generally is not a way to unravel it when you’re sitting outside of that production,” Travis Knox, an associate professor of producing at Chapman University, told the LA Times of deciphering the hierarchy of production teams. “You just don’t know.”

Sources disputed the notion that Rust was a vanity title for Baldwin, according to the Hollywood Reporter. He developed the film and shares a “story by credit” with Souza.

“If Baldwin was just an actor,” Fraenkel said, the bar to prove that the actor acted without “due caution or circumspection”—which is the standard applied to involuntary manslaughter—might be lower. But more questions may be raised about negligence if Baldwin was partly responsible for overseeing security protocols on set, the lawyer added.

Fraenkel said the district attorney will have a lot of discretion when deciding if, and how, to charge Baldwin. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure on this DA to make the right decision,” he said. Civil charges against those involved in the shooting are likely, as well.

Carmach-Altwies asked for patience as her office completes its investigation, saying it will take “many more facts” to determine if criminal negligence was involved in Hutchins’s death.