Alec Baldwin Trial: Gun Safety in Focus in Actor’s Murder Case
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Alec Baldwin Trial: Gun Safety in Focus in Actor’s Murder Case

A jury is scheduled to hear opening statements Wednesday in the manslaughter trial of Alec Baldwin in the death of a cinematographer.

The trial will explore firearm safety, fame and a low-budget Western filmed on a remote ranch.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys selected 16 jurors — 11 women and five men — Tuesday, seating a jury from a region that is prone to gun ownership and safety, fueled by backcountry hunting. Four jurors will be considered alternates, and the remaining 12 will deliberate after receiving the case.

The death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, a 42-year-old rising star in her field, occurred almost three years ago and rocked the film industry. Baldwin was charged with a felony that carries a sentence of up to 18 months in prison.

Baldwin pleaded not guilty and returned to the desert Southwest to attend a hearing at a courthouse in downtown Santa Fe, not far from the film farm where scenes for “Rust” were filmed.

Baldwin claims the gun accidentally went off when he followed instructions to point it at Hutchins, who was behind the camera. Unaware that the gun was loaded with a live round, he said he pulled back the hammer — not the trigger — and fired.

Prosecutors say they will present evidence that Baldwin “went off script” and failed to follow basic industry standards for firearm safety when he pointed the gun at Hutchins on Oct. 21, 2021.

“Ultimately, the prosecutor’s primary theory is that there was a firearm involved and Baldwin had a gun in his hand and it doesn’t matter if it’s a movie set or a hunting safety class, you’re responsible for what comes out of the barrel,” said John Day, a Santa Fe defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Alec Baldwin leaves courthouse, jury selection begins
Alec Baldwin leaves courthouse, jury selection begins (Reuters Agency)

Baldwin’s attorney, Alex Spiro, on Tuesday probed potential jurors’ preconceptions about firearm safety, asking whether a person must take full responsibility for whether a gun is loaded or whether they can “leave it to the experts. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

Most people surveyed said they always treat their guns as if they were loaded.

Baldwin, the star of “Beetlejuice,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “30 Rock” who has been a household name as an actor and public figure for more than three decades, also co-produced “Rust,” which had an initial budget of about $7.5 million — a small amount by union standards. Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer ruled shortly before the hearing that his status as a producer was irrelevant to the case.

Workplace safety investigators and previous court testimony confirmed that there were two misfires on set before the fatal incident, and that six crew members left the set the day before Hutchins’ death, fearing issues including hotel accommodations and safety.

Marlowe Sommer sealed the summary of those findings at the request of prosecutors, who called the investigation unreliable.

In court documents, defense attorneys emphasized that the gunsmith, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, had already been found responsible for the shooting, and also testified that the gun was checked by an assistant director before being given to Baldwin — and that the shooting was confusing and shocking to the entire crew, who were convinced there were no live ammunition on the set.

Gutierrez-Reed is serving an 18-month prison sentence while appealing her conviction in March on a manslaughter charge that prosecutors blame for allowing live ammunition to make its way onto the set without detection, in a trial that also unearthed a video of Baldwin rushing gun supervisors to reload his revolver and swinging the weapon like a pointing stick.

APTOPIX Baldwin Photo Set
APTOPIX Baldwin Photo Set

Prosecutors have two alternative standards for proving the charge. One is negligent use of a firearm. The other is proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin acted with complete disregard or indifference for the safety of others.

Testimony at trial will focus on deficiencies in the gun’s final safety check before Baldwin’s trials began, as well as the gun’s mechanics and whether it could have fired without the trigger being pulled. The live bullet that killed Hutchins also wounded director Joel Souza.

Day believes Baldwin’s claim that he never pulled the trigger, first made in an interview with ABC News in December 2021, narrows the defense’s options in the trial.

“Because he told George Stephanopoulos, the defense has to try to show that, well, the gun will just go off if you look at it funny,” Day said. “They also have to bring in movie business experts who say, ‘You know, if someone hands an actor a gun and tells him it’s safe, you should believe him.’”

Mark Sedlander, a civil defense attorney in Los Angeles, said it’s rare for an accidental workplace death to go to criminal court, but the fatal shooting in “Rust” raises fundamental workplace safety issues.

“This is a case of a woman who was tragically murdered at work, away from her family, doing her job, just like Americans do all over the country. She went to work one day and never came back,” said Sedlander of the Mancini Shenk law firm.

Prosecutors initially dismissed the manslaughter charge against Baldwin in April 2023, saying they were told the gun may have been modified before the shooting and malfunctioned.

A more recent analysis of the gun ordered by prosecutors found that “the trigger must have been pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer.”

Defense attorneys argue that destructive testing of the gun by the FBI, which destroyed parts of the trigger mechanism, may have destroyed evidence that could have exonerated Baldwin.