On October 21, 2021, actor Alec Baldwin shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a rehearsal on the set of Rust, a western movie that was being filmed in New Mexico.
Recently George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewed Baldwin about the shooting. (You can view that interview in its entirety by clicking on this link. )
While Baldwin punctuated his answers with tears and expressions of anguish and sympathy for Hutchins’ family, from a legal standpoint, the interview was nothing short of disastrous. As explained below, Baldwin illogically and unconvincingly denied responsibility for the killing and lamely attempted to shift blame for Hutchins’ death to others including, stupefyingly enough, the victim herself. In the process, he effectively and unwittingly confessed to committing involuntary manslaughter.
The killing took place as Baldwin and Hutchins were doing a “marking rehearsal” in a faux church structure where a gunfight scene was to be filmed. According to Baldwin, Assistant Director Dave Halls called out “cold gun” (meaning that it held no live ammunition) as he handed a revolver to the actor. Baldwin said that he did not personally check to see if the gun was loaded since that was the responsibility of the production’s armorer, 24 year-old Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. But, as will be discussed below, Reed was not on the set when Halls handed the gun to Baldwin.
Baldwin said that, a week previously, Reed had given him a one and one-half hour “safety demonstration” during which they had fired “the pistol,” an apparent reference to the revolver in question. Left unsaid was whether or not that training session involved the use of live ammunition.
Although Rust was only the second movie on which Reed had served as an armorer, Baldwin “assumed that she was up to the job because she was hired.” Also, she had done nothing during the safety demonstration that concerned him.
During the marking rehearsal in the church set, Hutchins directed Baldwin on how and where to hold the gun in front of the camera. Baldwin told Stephanopoulos that he was not pointing the pistol at the camera. Instead, he was pointing it at Hutchins who was beside the camera.
What happened next is summarized in the following quotations transcribed from the interview video.
Baldwin: And she’s getting me to position the gun. Everything is at her direction…I’m holding the gun where she told me to hold it which ended up being aimed right below her armpit was what I was told. I don’t know…
So then I said to her “In this scene I’m going to cock the gun.” I said, “Do you want to see that?” And she said, “Yes.” So I take the gun and start to cock the gun. I’m not going to pull the trigger. I said, “Do you see this?” She said, “Just lower it down, tilt it down.”
And I cock the gun. “Can you see that? Can you see that?”
And I let go of the hammer and the gun goes off. I let go of the hammer and then the gun goes off. That was the moment the gun goes off.
Stephanopoulos: It wasn’t in the script for the trigger to be pulled.
Baldwin: Well, the trigger wasn’t pulled. I never pulled the trigger.
Stephanopoulos: So you never pulled the trigger?
Baldwin: No, no, no, no. I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never. It was the training I had. You don’t point a gun at someone and pull the trigger.
Now let’s pause and examine step by step what Baldwin said.
First, he did not personally check the pistol to see if it was loaded.
Second, he admitted pointing the gun at Hutchins because that’s where she directed him to aim it.
Third, as he continued to point the gun at Hutchins, he pulled back the hammer.
Fourth, even though he didn’t pull the trigger, when he let go of the hammer, the gun discharged.
According to Dave Halls’ lawyer, the assistant director maintains that Baldwin’s “finger was never inside the trigger guard” when the gun went off.
But Santa Fe County Sheriff Adam Mendoza, who is investigating Hutchins’ death, says that Baldwin’s story makes no sense.
“Guns don’t just go off,” Mendoza told Fox News. “So whatever needs to happen to manipulate the firearm [to make it fire], he did that and it was in his hands.”
The weapon in question is a replica of an 1873 Colt Single Action Army .45 caliber revolver manufactured in Italy by F.LLI Pietta. There are two ways that this gun can be fired.
The first way involves cocking the hammer and then pressing the trigger. Baldwin denies doing this.
The second way involves pressing and holding down the trigger while pulling back the hammer. With the trigger held down, the hammer will slam forward once it is no longer manually held in place. When that happens, the gun will discharge.
In either method, the amount of finger pressure and the distance that the trigger travels are minuscule.
On CNN, Hollywood firearms expert Steve Wolf demonstrated these two firing methods. You can view that brief and instructive demonstration by clicking on this link.
Similarly, F.LLI Pietta’s “Instruction and Safety Manual for 1873 Single Action Revolvers” describes in detail how to operate the weapon and specifically warns the operator of the extreme care that must be taken in manipulating and “decocking” the hammer while holding down the trigger.
In short, unless the revolver in question was defective, it did not go off without Baldwin’s finger making contact with the trigger.
Was the gun defective? That will be determined by the FBI, which is examining and testing the weapon.
But, if it turns out that the gun functions as designed, then Baldwin will have built his defense — such as it is — on a claim that is demonstrably false. As a matter of law, such a false exculpatory statement can be used as evidence of Baldwin’s consciousness of guilt. In short, a prosecutor could use that false exculpatory statement to completely discredit Baldwin and eviscerate his defense.
But that isn’t the only devastating flaw lurking in Baldwin’s story. Consider this bit of unconvincing blame shifting transcribed from Baldwin’s interview.
Baldwin: I got countless people on line saying “You idiot, you should never point a gun at someone.” Well, unless you’re told it’s empty and the Director of Photography [Hutchins] is instructing you on the angle for a shot we’re going to do. And she and I had this thing in common where we both thought it was empty. And it wasn’t. And that’s not her responsibility, it’s not my responsibility. Whose responsibility remains to be seen.
Stephanopoulos: Well, there are some who say that you’re never supposed to point a gun at anyone on a set, no matter what.
Baldwin: Well, unless the person is the cinematographer who is directing you where to point the gun for her camera angle. That’s exactly what happened.
Got that? According to Baldwin, the most basic firearm safety rule against pointing a gun at someone didn’t apply to him because the assistant director — who was not the armorer responsible for making sure the gun was empty — said the gun was “cold,” and Hutchins — who knew nothing about the gun’s unsafe condition — told him to point it at her.
Is Baldwin seriously contending that, in essence, Hutchins is partially responsible for bringing about her own death? Is he saying that she assumed the risk of injury by telling him to point the gun at her?
Whatever point he is trying to make with this blame-shifting gibberish, one thing is clear. Baldwin’s argument is not only fatuous and easily refuted, it is blatantly dishonest and guaranteed to offend judge and jury alike.
Baldwin claimed that, over the course of his movie making career, he had handled many firearms and had been instructed by armorers not to check to see if the gun was loaded. Early in his career, when he tried to do so, the armorers would take the gun from him and check to make sure that he hadn’t improperly altered its condition.
“We don’t want the actor to be the last line of defense,” said Baldwin. “The person responsible is the armorer, and the actor’s responsibility is to do what the prop armorer tells him to do.”
But what’s Baldwin’s point? As he described events, armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, Baldwin’s so-called responsible party, was not on the set, did not hand the gun to him, and did not tell him that it wasn’t loaded. So why did he even raise this issue unless it was just another bit of misdirection and blame shifting?
As a counterpoint to Baldwin’s claims about accepted movie industry firearms practices, the interview featured the following audio comment by actor George Clooney.
Clooney: Every single time I’m handed a gun on a set, every time they hand me a gun, I look at it, I open it, I show it to the person I’m pointing it to (sic). We show it to the crew. Every single take. You hand it back to the armorer when you’re done. You do it again… Everyone does it. Everybody knows it.
When asked to respond to Clooney’s criticism, Baldwin evasively replied, “Well, there were a lot of people who felt it was necessary to contribute some comment to the situation which didn’t help the situation at all.”
And then he sniffed, “If your protocol is you check the gun every time, well good for you.”
Just so. But the big problem with this dismissive rejoinder is that it is coming from someone who just shot and killed his cinematographer, a pesky detail that tends to detract from the strength of Baldwin’s position.
Good for you, indeed.
When Stephanopoulos asked if he feels guilt for Hutchins’ death, Baldwin replied, “No, no. I feel that there is, I feel that someone is responsible for what happened. And I can’t say who that is, but I know it’s not me.”
This from the man who literally held the smoking gun and who, with just the slightest exercise of due caution, could unquestionably have prevented Hutchins’ death by either personally clearing the weapon of live ammunition, pointing it in a safe direction, or not pulling back the hammer which is a major step in causing the gun to fire.
Despite Baldwin’s tangled logic and desperate effort to deflect responsibility, he is simply and inescapably the most central and culpable figure in causing Hutchins’ shooting death.
In New Mexico, manslaughter is defined as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.”
“Without malice” means that the actor had no intention to kill.
Involuntary manslaughter is defined as “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.”
A related New Mexico statute makes it a “petty misdemeanor” to negligently use a deadly weapon. It prohibits “endangering the safety of another by handling or using a firearm in a negligent manner.” No actual physical injury need result in order to violate this statute. It is sufficient if the negligent handling or use of the firearm merely endangered another.
The New Mexico courts have defined “negligent” as used in this statute as “omitting to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something which a prudent or reasonable man would not do.”
Applying these statutes to Baldwin’s version of events, there is ample basis for arguing that, even though Baldwin intended no harm, he endangered Hutchins’ safety by negligently pointing the revolver at her while manipulating its hammer. By committing that “petty misdemeanor,” Baldwin committed the predicate “unlawful act not amounting to a felony” that establishes his liability under the involuntary manslaughter statute. In short, based on nothing more than his imprudent and negligent handling of the firearm, Baldwin could properly be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Similarly, he could also be charged under another section of the involuntary manslaughter statute based on his handling and use of the firearm without exercising “due caution and circumspection.”
With the exception of the forensic examination of the gun, all of the evidence necessary to prove each and every element of the crimes of negligent use of a firearm and involuntary manslaughter comes straight from Baldwin’s mouth. Right there on network television, under Stephanopoulos’ gentle questioning, Baldwin inadvertently and unwittingly confessed to involuntary manslaughter.
So, will he be arrested and prosecuted?
Toward the end of the interview, Baldwin said, “I’ve been told by people who are in the know in terms of — even inside the state — that it’s highly unlikely I would be charged with anything criminally.”
In response, the Santa Fe County District Attorney told ABC News that, at this point in time, she “would not say that” Baldwin was not going to be charged. But Baldwin’s remark raises the question of whether there are back-channel, off-the-books negotiations underway which could result in the District Attorney declining to prosecute the rich and famous actor.
If so, that might explain why Baldwin did the interview with Stephanopoulos. While it made no sense from a strictly legal standpoint, given his copious expressions of tearful sorrow, anguish, and sympathy for his victim’s family, the interview might be the first step in crafting a narrative calculated to garner public support that would, in turn, afford the District Attorney enough political space and immunity to give Baldwin a pass.
Trust me. When it comes to holding wealthy celebrities accountable under the law, much stranger things have happened.
George Parry is a former federal and state prosecutor. He blogs at knowledgeisgood.net and may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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