At the time of this writing, two months have passed since Alec Baldwin shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
Before Christmas, authorities issued a warrant for Baldwin’s cellphone in what is clearly a search for evidence of criminal culpability. And on Christmas Eve, Baldwin said on Instagram that the event would never be behind him, while his wife Hilaria shared her own post about the family’s lovely holiday in the Hamptons.
On the day of the shooting, Baldwin, the producer and star of the film “Rust,” was handed a gun by Dave Halls, the assistant director, who indicated that it did not have live ammunition.
A week after Hutchins was killed by a bullet fired from the gun, the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, said through her lawyer that she had absolutely no idea where the bullet could have come from:
“Safety is Hannah’s number one priority on set. Ultimately this set would never have been compromised if live ammo were not introduced. Hannah has no idea where the live rounds came from.”
In light of a remarkably ill-advised TV appearance in which Baldwin claimed it is highly unlikely he will be charged, Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies warned that criminal charges were still possible.
“Everyone involved in the handling and use of firearms on the set had a duty to behave in a manner such that the safety of others was protected, and it appears that certain actions and inactions contributed to this outcome,” she said.
Yet two months later, the public is wondering what the delay could possibly be.
Those who theorize that Baldwin will eventually be charged generally assume the crime he committed will be classified as either involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide. As each state defines these crimes differently and the incident took place in New Mexico, there are three important New Mexico statutes to look at here.
The first is the state’s manslaughter statute:
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.
A. Voluntary manslaughter consists of manslaughter committed upon a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion.
Whoever commits voluntary manslaughter is guilty of a third degree felony resulting in the death of a human being.
B. Involuntary manslaughter consists of 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.
Whoever commits involuntary manslaughter is guilty of a fourth degree felony.
As to the first prong of the statute, there is no evidence that there was a quarrel between Baldwin and Hutchins or that the gun was fired in the “heat of passion,” though a tangential argument could be made that an actor practicing a scene in character is indeed acting in the heat of passion. As to the second prong, Baldwin wasn’t otherwise committing an unlawful act (he didn’t discharge the gun while robbing a bank, for example), so this does not apply.
The second statute excuses homicide in the following cases:
A. when committed by accident or misfortune in doing any lawful act, by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution and without any unlawful intent; or
B. when committed by accident or misfortune in the heat of passion, upon any sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat, if no undue advantage is taken, nor any dangerous weapon used and the killing is not done in a cruel or unusual manner.
The first section here is more than likely the main reason we are still awaiting charges against Baldwin. New Mexico excuses homicide that is simply misfortune if no unlawful act was committed. Shooting a gun on a movie set that you incorrectly assumed had no ammunition could very well be seen by prosecutors as falling into that category.
The key for the district attorney and perhaps a jury, of course, is whether Baldwin used “usual and ordinary caution.” Undoubtedly, this initial determination is where the district attorney’s office has been focusing its time and energy over the past weeks.
The final relevant statute states that when a homicide is excusable or justifiable, the defendant must be acquitted:
Whenever any person is prosecuted for a homicide, and upon his trial the killing shall be found to have been excusable or justifiable, the jury shall find such person not guilty and he shall be discharged.
John Lawlor, a lawyer who represents families in which there has been a wrongful death, reminds us that no matter how heated public opinion becomes, the focus needs to be on the law and the facts of the case.
“While the public outrage here is understandable, the district attorney’s office has no choice but to apply the law of the jurisdiction to the act committed and decide whether to bring criminal charges,” he said. “The family of the woman who was killed in this tragedy will certainly consider pursuing a civil claim, as her life was taken as a result of negligent, reckless, or wrongful behavior.”
Part of the public outcry is that we have a strong shared belief that if any of us shot and killed someone, even in a completely accidental manner, we would be charged. Many feel that Baldwin is being given preferential treatment because of his celebrity.
But as Lawlor points out, jurisdictions can only charge people under their own laws. Even if another jurisdiction might have charged Baldwin with negligent death, involuntary manslaughter or reckless endangerment, the shooting and death happened in New Mexico, so we have to follow New Mexico law.
No matter how all of this is resolved with the district attorney’s office over the next few weeks, the reality is that Baldwin pointed a firearm in the direction of Hutchins and pulled the trigger. He did not follow the first basic rule of gun responsibility, which was to check the firearm to ensure that it was safe.
The public will continue to believe that Baldwin and others involved in the production of “Rust” are responsible for the death of Halyna Hutchins, and any other conclusion will be seen as a gross miscarriage of justice.
The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.