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What's next for the Alec Baldwin 'Rust' case after film's armorer was found guilty?

Alec Baldwin, seen here talking to police after a fatal shooting on the <em>Rust</em> movie set in 2021, faces a felony criminal trial in New Mexico this summer. This image is from video released by the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office.
Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office via AP
Alec Baldwin, seen here talking to police after a fatal shooting on the Rust movie set in 2021, faces a felony criminal trial in New Mexico this summer. This image is from video released by the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office.

A felony trial for Alec Baldwin is set to begin in four months, as prosecutors in New Mexico pursue charges of involuntary manslaughter against the actor over the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film Rust in 2021.

One person has already been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of 42-year-old Hutchins: Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, 26, the armorer, or weapons supervisor, for the film. A jury recently sided with prosecutors who said that as the person in charge of the production's weaponry, Gutierrez-Reed was negligent and reckless, leading to Hutchins' death.

Gutierrez-Reed is now awaiting sentencing, facing the possible maximum of an 18-month prison term — the same punishment Baldwin could see if he were to be found guilty.

Jury selection for Baldwin's criminal trial is scheduled to begin on July 9. The trial is expected to last eight days, according to court records.

Baldwin has an edge, a former prosecutor says

So what does the armorer's guilty verdict mean for the 65-year-old actor, the state's next target?

"He has the advantage here for a couple of reasons," former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who has been following the case, told NPR.

"First, obviously, he's going to point the finger at Gutierrez-Reed, who is now a convicted felon. It's an easy empty chair to point to at trial," the Los Angeles-based Rahmani said.

And by trying Gutierrez-Reed first, he added, prosecutors gave Baldwin's lawyers "a preview of the evidence that's going to come out during his trial, the witness testimony, the exhibits that will be admitted."

Rahmani also notes that Baldwin's legal team has already notched key victories, from getting the prosecution to drop a five-year firearms sentencing enhancementfrom his case to getting Andrea Reeb, a New Mexico state representative who was also serving as special prosecutor, to step down from the case a year ago.

Reeb's replacements as special prosecutors, Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis, also dropped an involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin last year, saying they needed more time to conduct forensic analysis. They warned the case could be refiled — which they later did.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty

Baldwin pleaded not guilty to the refiled involuntary manslaughter charge in January, days after a grand jury in Santa Fe indicted him.

While some key details of the case are contested, it is known that Baldwin was holding a gun containing at least one live round — and that he was pointing the firearm at Hutchins when it discharged, killing the film's cinematographer and also injuring its director, Joel Souza.

The tragic news of Hutchins' death sent shockwaves through the film industry and raised a number of questions about how an on-location rehearsal at Bonanza Creek Ranch, southwest of Santa Fe, could have gone so wrong.

In a 2021 interview, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News reminded Baldwin of a widely held maxim: to never point a gun at another person, no matter what.

"Unless the person is the cinematographer who's directing me where to point the gun for her camera angle," Baldwin replied. "That's exactly what happened."

But script supervisor Mamie Mitchell, who separately sued Baldwin and others after the shooting, hasrepeatedly disputed the idea that the script called for Baldwin to point a gun at Hutchins or the camera that day. She had been standing near the cinematographer when she was shot.

At the time of the shooting, Baldwin was practicing his "cross draw" — when the gun is holstered across the body from a shooter's dominant hand — with Hutchins and Souza looking on.

Baldwin has said he pulled the hammer back on the Colt .45 style revolver, but that he didn't pull the trigger. He also said he didn't know the gun held live ammunition. Prosecutors say forensic analysis of the pistol shows it could not have discharged without the trigger being pulled.

Film's safety coordinator will be a crucial witness

Before winning a verdict against Gutierrez-Reed, the prosecution secured a conviction last year of safety coordinator and assistant director David Halls on lesser charges. In a plea deal, Halls agreed to testify truthfully in "any and all" criminal cases related to Hutchins' death.

It was Halls who checked the pistol before handing it to Baldwin, Halls' attorney, Lisa Torraco, said last year. But, she said, Halls did not check every round in the weapon. The chance that live rounds might have been loaded into the gun, she said was "never in anyone's imagination."

In a recent court filing, Baldwin's defense team included only one name on their witness list: Halls.

"It seems Baldwin will stick to his original story," Rahmani said, "that Halls gave him the gun and told him that it was a cold gun, and he relied on that representation."

One open question: to what degree prosecutors might focus on Baldwin's role as a co-producer of the Western film, whose production reportedly saw other accidental gun discharges. Six months after Hutchins died, New Mexico imposed the maximum possible fine on Rust's producers, citing firearms safety failures on the set.

But Rahmani says that in his view, the prosecution should focus on the fatal shooting itself.

"I think if you're the state and you want to convict Baldwin, I think you've got to lean in to [proving Baldwin pulled the trigger] despite denying it," he said.

But Rahmani predicts getting a conviction will be a challenge, for one other reason.

"Jurors love celebrities. So I think the state is going to have an uphill battle."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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