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Grand jury indictment against Alec Baldwin opens two paths for prosecutors

This aerial photo shows part of the Bonanza Creek Ranch film set in Santa Fe, N.M., Oct. 23, 2021.
Jae C. Hong
This aerial photo shows part of the Bonanza Creek Ranch film set in Santa Fe, N.M., Oct. 23, 2021.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Alec Baldwin once again is staring down a felony involuntary manslaughter charge after a grand jury indicted the actor in connection with the fatal 2021 shooting of a cinematographer on the set of a Western movie in New Mexico.

The lead actor and a co-producer on "Rust," Baldwin pointed a gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during rehearsal on a movie set outside Santa Fe when the gun went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza.

A new analysis of the gun opened the way for prosecutors to reboot the case, after dismissing an involuntary manslaughter charge last year. A new one-page indictment delivered by the grand jury Friday alleges Baldwin caused Hutchins' death — either by negligence or "total disregard or indifference" for safety.

Defense attorneys for Baldwin indicate they'll fight the charge, which carries a potential prison sentence of up to 18 months.

Here are some things to know about the case.

Next steps

Baldwin can enter a formal plea with or without a court arraignment, setting in motion preparations for trial.

The indictment provides prosecutors with two alternative standards for the felony involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin. One would be based on the negligent use of a firearm.

Baldwin has said he pulled back the gun's hammer, but not the trigger, and the weapon fired. But a recent analysis of the gun used by Baldwin from Lucien and Michael Haag of Forensic Science Services in Arizona concluded that "the trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver." Michael Haag testified to the grand jury this week as a witness, according to the new indictment.

An earlier FBI report on the agency's analysis of the gun found that, as is common with firearms of that design, it could go off without pulling the trigger if force was applied to an uncocked hammer — such as by dropping the weapon. The gun eventually broke during testing.

A second alternative for prosecutors is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin caused the death of Hutchins without due caution or "circumspection," also defined as "an act committed with total disregard or indifference for the safety of others."

Baldwin as co-producer

Prosecutors declined to answer questions Friday after spending about a day and a half presenting their case to the grand jury.

Santa Fe-based defense attorney and former prosecutor John Day, who is not connected to the case, believes the indictment gives prosecutors a possible opportunity to address Baldwin's safety obligations as a co-producer.

"We don't know exactly what their theory is," Day said. "It could be that they're including his role as basically CEO of the production ... not having a safe workplace and somebody dies and you're at the top of the pyramid."

The company Rust Movie Productions has paid a $100,000 fine to state workplace safety regulators following a scathing narrative of safety failures in violation of standard industry protocols, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires on set before the fatal shooting.

Two related trials

Separately, special prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis are preparing for a February trial against "Rust" armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and evidence tampering in the case.

That trial is likely to proceed independently — and could give Baldwin's attorneys insights into prosecution strategies and testimony from key witnesses who are likely to also testify in proceedings against Baldwin.

"His attorneys will certainly be watching the armorer's trial closely," said Los Angeles-based entertainment litigator and defense attorney Kate Mangels, who is not involved in the case. "It could offer a preview of the prosecution's approach and potential witness testimony."

Baldwin's case was assigned to Santa Fe-based state District Court Judge T. Glenn Ellington, a specialist in criminal cases. The Gutierrez-Reed case is overseen by a different judge.

"We look forward to our day in court," said Luke Nikas and Alex Spiro, defense attorneys for Baldwin.

Potential witnesses

Two of the witnesses seen at the courthouse included crew members — one who was present when the fatal shot was fired and another who had walked off the set the day before due to safety concerns.

"Rust" assistant director and safety coordinator David Halls pleaded no contest to unsafe handling of a firearm last March and received a suspended sentence of six months of probation. He agreed to cooperate in the shooting investigation.

New court filings Friday indicate that "Rust" prop master Sarah Zachry has signed an agreement to cooperate with special prosecutors in return for leniency. Zachry worked closely to secure guns and ammunition on set with Gutierrez-Reed.

Mangels said a grand jury indictment is by no means an assurance that prosecutors will prevail at trial.

"Just getting an indictment from a grand jury in no way means the prosecution has a slam dunk case or even a strong case," she said.

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]