How Fucked Is Alec Baldwin? (Legally Speaking)
Assessing the potential liability of the actor/producer and others involved in the tragic Rust movie shooting
As investigations into the Rust movie shooting that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins continue, one of the primary questions that remains unanswered is: ultimately, who is responsible for this fatal incident last week at Bonanza Creek Ranch in New Mexico?
Is it the armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who was in charge of all firearms and weaponry used on the production? Is it the assistant director Dave Halls, who oversaw safety on the set and handed a loaded gun to Alec Baldwin? Is it Baldwin, who shot the gun that killed Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza? Is it Souza himself? Is it the producers — Baldwin among them — who are accountable for running a production that allegedly cut corners and hired inexperienced or unprofessional people?
Baldwin has become the face of this tragedy, not only because he discharged the gun, but also as a producer of the film, which, depending on the details of his position, could suggest some degree of culpability over the alleged mismanagement of the production as a whole.
So: how fucked is Alec Baldwin, legally speaking? Let’s walk through some hypothetical scenarios, given the facts that are known right now:
Not at all
Baldwin, who tweeted the day after the shooting that he is “fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred,” has not been charged at this time. According to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office’s affidavit for a search warrant, Baldwin didn’t know that the revolver he was handling contained live rounds. Halls took one of the three guns that Guettierez-Reed had set on a cart and handed it to Baldwin, announcing that it was a “cold gun” to indicate that it was unloaded. The job duties of Halls — who also alleged that he didn’t know the gun contained ammunition — and Gutierrez-Reed included ensuring firearm safety on the set, Souza said in the affidavit; it is typically not the responsibility of a cast member like Baldwin to make sure the a gun is not loaded.
And even though Baldwin was the one to discharge the gun that killed someone, New Mexico’s statute of excusable homicide means that homicide is not necessarily illegal “when committed by accident or misfortune in doing any lawful act, by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution and without any unlawful intent.” In other words, intent and care matter. Assuming that Baldwin was indeed not aware that the firearm had ammunition, and if he was not handling the firearm in a negligent manner, it’s unlikely that he will face criminal charges for discharging the gun, said attorney John Frank Higgins, the president and cofounder of Higgins Law Corporation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Sharon Dolovich, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles and the director of the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, agreed. Unless new evidence comes out to the contrary, there is essentially no legal argument anyone could make that would find Baldwin, as the actor who discharged the gun, criminally liable, she told Gawker.
However, Baldwin the producer — along with the other producers overseeing the production — could have more of a legal headache to contend with, with the possibility of a civil lawsuit likely, accident and personal injury lawyer Miguel Custodio told USA Today.
This would come down to how safety protocols were upheld on the set. “If there were overall safety concerns, and this accident was a foreseeable result of negligence and otherwise pattern of recklessness,” producers including Baldwin could be subject to civil liability, including claims for negligence or wrongful death, Higgins said.
That could very well be the case, as the Los Angeles Times previously reported that the production had allegedly already suffered from poor working conditions and lax safety standards, including misfires, prior to the fatal incident. Crew members said that Baldwin’s stunt double had accidentally fired two rounds from a gun that he had been told was cold. “There should have been an investigation into what happened,” a crew member told the LA Times. “There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.” (Rust Movie Productions responded that it was “not made aware of any official complaints concerning weapon or prop safety on set.”)
Hutchins’s family, should they choose to file suit, could “make a showing that the entire operation was run so haphazardly that it created an unreasonable risk of harm,” according to Dolovich. If evidence emerges that the production was grossly, flagrantly creating an unsafe and risky environment through a deviation from an accepted standard of care, e.g., cutting corners or disregarding safety for the sake of speeding through the shoot, then that could then cross into criminal territory, although a judge or jury in the resulting trial would also have to find that the defendants — for example, the production company and the producers, who were said to be inexperienced — were either aware that they were creating a risk of harm, or the risk was obvious so as to be self-evident.
In the case of a civil lawsuit, those found to be guilty would have to pay Hutchins’s family and estate the value of the cinematographer’s life: an amount decided by a judge or jury that takes into account the family’s emotional losses, the loss of consortium to the family (a.k.a. the loss of affection, love, and the relationship), and the loss of income and future wages, per Higgins. In the case of the 2014 death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was killed on a railroad trestle while filming the movie Midnight Rider, the jury found the value of Jones’s life, including her pain and suffering, to be $11.2 million.
The only way for Baldwin in particular to be royally fucked would be if evidence comes out that contradicts the facts as currently known: that he was not aware that the gun was loaded and that he did not behave irresponsibly with the gun or otherwise deviate from reasonable and expected norms of handling a gun that was presumably “cold.”
“The absolute worst-case scenario for Mr. Baldwin is that a witness comes forth and says, ‘Yeah, we told him it was loaded with live ammunition because in that particular scene we needed to shoot a hole in the wall, so it was a real bullet,’” Arthur L. Aidala, a managing partner of the firm Aidala, Bertuna & Kamins, told Insider. That could lead to a manslaughter charge. Per the LA Times, “In New Mexico, involuntary manslaughter charges can be brought against someone who commits a lawful act that results in death because of negligence or a lack of due caution.”
But, again, as far as we know at this point in time, that does not appear to be the case.
Instead, it’s much more likely that the people directly responsible for loading and checking the gun and upholding safety protocols overall — the armorer or the assistant director, for example — could face criminal liability. Whoever did put that ammo in the gun could potentially even face a charge of depraved mind murder, Dolovich said. This kind of murder, classified in New Mexico as murder of the first degree, constitutes conduct that is not subjectively dangerous and not necessarily done with “homicidal intent,” but with “a depraved kind of wantonness” that demonstrates an “utter disregard for human life.” Such as, one might say with some amount of speculation, loading live rounds into a gun — and one that will be used in a scene in close contact with crew members — without telling anyone.
Randall Miller, the director of the aforementioned Midnight Rider, was the first filmmaker to be jailed for an on-set fatality in the U.S., pleading guilty to the involuntary manslaughter of camera assistant Jones. Admitting that he and the production had trespassed on the rail track where Jones was killed, he accepted a plea deal that included two years of jail time — only one of which he ended up serving — eight years of probation, a $20,000 fine, community service, and an agreement to refrain from serving as a director, first assistant director, or supervisor with any responsibility over safety for the next decade.
The Santa Fe County district attorney, Mary Carmack-Altwies, said on Tuesday that “everything at this point, including criminal charges, is on the table,” the New York Times reported. The investigation is focusing primarily on determining what kind of ammunition was in the gun and who put it there.