Some bureaucratic paperwork between the Santa Fe district attorney and New Mexico’s Board of Finance sheds light on possible, long-awaited next steps prosecutors may take in the fatal shooting on the set of “Rust” last year.
Santa Fe Dist. Atty. Mary Carmack-Altwies’ emergency request for $635,500 from the state to prosecute gives the first indications of the scale of any criminal case for the killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the low-budget western.
In a document viewed by The Times, Carmack-Altwies said she may prosecute up to four people, each requiring their own jury trial — including the well-known actor Alec Baldwin — who authorities said discharged the weapon that accidentally killed the 42-year-old mother of one and injuring director Joel Souza.
Here are some other key takeaways from the move:
Charges appear imminent
The letter suggests prosecutors are close to filing criminal charges, attorneys said.
“The fact that the D.A. went to the state to get this funding leads me to believe that at least one person will be charged now,” said trial attorney and former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, who is not involved in the case. “This is a public document, you better be ready to charge someone.”
To be sure, as Baldwin’s attorney Luke Nikas said the D.A. has said she has not decided who if anyone will be charged.
But Carmack-Altwies’ request for emergency funding — to help pay for a special investigator, a media spokesperson and expert witnesses — underscores the magnitude of the cases and pressure her small office is under to respond to a tragedy involving a big Hollywood star.
“It’s definitely an indication of indictments coming in, and probably indictments that they feel cause a significant undertaking for their department,” said Joshua Ritter, a partner with Werksman Jackson & Quinn and a former Los Angeles County prosecutor.
“It looks like that county office is expecting a very large litigation,” he added. “We can connect the dots that you might expect that Alec Baldwin would be one of the people indicted.”
The production has already faced a fine over allegations of negligence from the state’s health and safety body and there are several civil lawsuits pending. Rust Productions has denied wrongdoing. However those administrative charges and any civil litigation will not play into the decision-making by criminal prosecutors, Rahmani said.
Not just Baldwin who could be charged
Beyond Baldwin, several others could be charged criminally.
The film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, and first assistant director Dave Halls, who have been sued civilly, are possible targets.
However, it would be difficult to bring a charge against an employer like a production company, Rahmani said. Some crew members told The Times that there were safety problems on-set, including accidental gun discharges, but producers have disputed the claim.
Baldwin, also a producer on the film, has blamed Gutierrez Reed and Halls. “There are two people who didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” he told CNN in an interview. “I want everybody to know that those are the two people that are responsible for what happened.”
While Gutierrez Reed was responsible for maintaining the weapons, Halls called out “cold gun,” suggesting the gun was safe to use, Baldwin told ABC News in an interview last year. And Halls told detectives on the day of the incident that he thought he saw three rounds and acknowledged that “he should have checked all of them, but didn’t.”
Representatives for Gutierrez Reed declined to comment. Lisa Torraco, attorney for Halls, said she didn’t think her client should be charged.
Gutierrez Reed has denied wrongdoing, arguing that she had been stretched thin by the production, tasked as well with managing props. Halls’ attorney previously contradicted an affidavit in which Halls said he took a gun off the cart and handed it to Baldwin, saying that did not happen.
What are the possible charges?
A murder charge against Baldwin and any other defendants would be hard to bring, attorneys said, given there is no evidence that anyone had any intent to kill other crew members.
Prosecutors are more likely to seek negligent or involuntary manslaughter charges, several legal experts said.
“For all that we know about this, it still appears as though this was a very tragic accident,” Ritter said. “I would be shocked personally if some sort of homicide-related charges were brought, but I’d be less surprised if it were something along the lines of some sort of negligent discharge of a weapon or negligent handling of a weapon, or brandishing of a weapon.”
Baldwin has said he believed he was was handed a safe gun on a safe set. “That seems like a fairly strong defense,” Ritter added.
But prosecutors could argue Baldwin shouldn’t have pointed the gun at a person — even if he thought it contained blanks, or cocked the gun or had his finger near the trigger, Rahmani said.
In New Mexico, involuntary manslaughter is a fourth-degree felony carrying a maximum of 18 years.
A long-awaited FBI report, including an analysis of the weapon that Baldwin fired, was delivered to police last month and concluded that the pistol “functioned normally when tested in the laboratory.” The analysts suggested the gun could not be fired without the trigger being pulled — something Baldwin has said he didn’t do.
Nikas, Baldwin’s attorney, drew a different conclusion.
“The gun fired in testing only one time — without having to pull the trigger — when the hammer was pulled back and the gun broke in two different places,” Nikas said. “The FBI was unable to fire the gun in any prior test, even when pulling the trigger, because it was in such poor condition.”