Legal experts say prosecutors will face an uphill battle in securing a conviction against actor Alec Baldwin, who will be charged with involuntary manslaughter for a tragic on-set shooting that left a young cinematographer dead.
“This is a very aggressive prosecution,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani told The Daily Beast. “This is overcharging, in my opinion.”
On Thursday, the Santa Fe district attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies announced her office planned to file charges against Baldwin and 25-year-old armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed for the Oct. 2021 fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, on the set of indie western Rust. Baldwin insisted that he didn’t know the Colt revolver was loaded when it accidentally went off as he pointed it at Hutchins. The incident also wounded the film’s 49-year-old director, Joel Souza.
Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed are expected to face two charges each by the end of the month—involuntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter in the commission of a lawful act. The latter charge has an added mandatory penalty of five years in prison because it was carried out with a firearm.
“On my watch, no one is above the law, and everyone deserves justice,” Carmack-Altwies said.
But while Carmack-Altwies alleged that “the evidence clearly shows a pattern of criminal disregard for safety” on set, legal experts canvassed by The Daily Beast are not convinced. In fact, most thought the decision to file charges was more about setting an example than the facts at hand.
For Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor who has defended several high-profile clients, the move speaks more to Baldwin’s celebrity than the allegations themselves.
“I think this is an example of a prosecutor trying to make an example out of somebody who is famous and in the public eye,” Levin, who is currently representing high-society scammer Anna Delvey, told The Daily Beast. “Clearly a tragic incident happened, and somebody's responsible, but I think that charging Alec Baldwin with a crime has a lot to do with the fact that he is Alec Baldwin.”
Levin believed that the case would have normally been a civil one—but because of Baldwin’s celebrity, it’s now playing out in a criminal courtroom and becoming a battle about forcing Hollywood to update their industry standards.
“I think this is a message to the film industry and I think the message is received, loud and clear,” Levin said. “It seems like the prosecution will be able to establish that gun safety protocols were not followed on set, but that does not mean that Alec Baldwin is personally responsible criminally for a homicide. It's a far leap from safety protocols being breached on set.”
Rahmani, who is now in private practice in the Los Angeles area, also noted that other parts of the case seemingly undermine the DA’s decision to file criminal charges. For example, Carmack-Altwies said Thursday that the film’s assistant director, David Halls, who admitted he didn’t properly check the gun, faces a suspended sentence and six months probation after signing a plea agreement for negligent use of a deadly weapon. Halls essentially received a “slap on the wrist” while Baldwin could get five years, Rahmani noted.
“The prosecution thinks that he's criminally responsible because not only are they charging him with involuntary manslaughter, they’re adding firearms enhancements that under New Mexico law has a five-year minimum mandatory sentence,” Rahmani said.
Criminal defense attorney Richard Kaplan also believed charges were overblown, telling The Daily Beast that he thought the criminal case will spur a chilling effect on production companies seeking to film movies in New Mexico.
“I could see a lot of film sets avoiding the state,” he said.
Los Angeles entertainment attorney Tre Lovell described movie sets as “different from the real world,” saying in an email that the “rules and protocols” in Hollywood are extremely specific in ascribing responsibility at every stage of production. Actors are not in charge of ensuring prop safety, and the idea that they might be tasked with inspecting their own equipment will never fly with the Screen Actors Guild, he said. However, he added, insurance companies may now start requiring additional safety measures on film and TV sets.
Former Los Angeles County prosecutor Joshua Ritter said he thought the buck stops with Baldwin—but that Baldwin has an obvious out, as well.
In an email to The Daily Beast, Ritter called the decision to charge Baldwin a “bold step” and noted that the star can argue he wasn’t responsible for prop safety. But, said Ritter, “[A]t the end of the day, the gun was in his hands.”
At the same time, Ritter believes Baldwin may have dug a hole for himself by being as outspoken as he has.
“I find it astounding how much Baldwin has talked about this case since the shooting,” Ritter said. “His attorneys need to sit on his chest until this plays out because the more he opens his mouth, the worse he’s making it for himself.”
And it seems like Baldwin has already gotten himself into trouble by insisting on speaking out about the case. He previously insisted that he never pulled the trigger, a claim refuted by an FBI forensic report that found the Colt .45 wouldn’t have discharged if not for Baldwin firing it.
Nevertheless, if Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed opt to go to trial, Rahmani believes prosecutors face the bigger obstacle in trying to convince a jury.
“Juries love celebrities. But prosecutors like going after celebrities to make a name for themselves, but juries love celebrities and acquit them all the time,” he said. “Baldwin is no spring chicken. He is going to fight.”
In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, Gutierrez Reed’s attorney Jason Bowles said, “Hannah is, and has always been, very emotional and sad about this tragic accident. But she did not commit involuntary manslaughter. These charges are the result of a very flawed investigation, and an inaccurate understanding of the full facts. We intend to bring the full truth to light and believe Hannah will be exonerated of wrongdoing by a jury.”
Baldwin’s attorney also voted to fight the charges, calling them a “terrible miscarriage of justice” and reiterating that Baldwin “relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds.”
Matt Hutchins, Halyna Hutchins’ widower, did not respond to a voicemail left Thursday on his personal cell phone. In an email, Brian Panish, a lawyer representing the Hutchins family, thanked authorities for bringing charges in the case, adding that their “independent investigation also supports charges are warranted.”
“It is a comfort to the family that, in New Mexico, no one is above the law,” Panish said. “We support the charges, will fully cooperate with this prosecution, and fervently hope the justice system works to protect the public and hold accountable those who break the law."