From the moment a gun went off on a film set in New Mexico last month, firing a bullet that killed the rising film photographer Halyna Hutchins, two questions have swirled around the tragic accident.
How could this happen? And who is to blame?
Not surprisingly, many have focused on the man who held the weapon when it went off: actor Alec Baldwin, who was to star in the harsh western “Rust.” But legal experts and former law enforcement officials say that despite the fact that he held the Colt .45 revolver that killed Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza, Baldwin may actually face the slightest threat of prosecution of anyone who handled the weapon. day.
Rather, experts say, assistant director David Halls and set-armor master Hannah Guttierez Reed are at far greater risk of being charged with manslaughter in Hutchins’ killings if the New Mexico 1st Judicial Dist. Atty. Mary Carmack-Altwies decides that someone should be prosecuted.
“Alec Baldwin may well have pulled that trigger, and that bullet may have killed the woman, but what is crucial to the criminal justice system is what he knew or should have known,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. who now serve. as a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It’s not enough just to say that his fingerprint is on that trigger.”
While Baldwin’s behavior appeared to violate common sense gun safety rules – there is no evidence that he checked to see if the weapon was loaded or tried to point it in a safe direction – legal experts said Baldwin followed directions from others and rehearsing a scene on a movie set at the time seriously reduces his guilt.
Legal observers say prosecutors are likely to focus on the behavior of those who would have been responsible for the care of the weapons and the safety of the set.
Several experts told The Times that they were concerned about statements Halls made to investigators at the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office after the shooting, statements that were first revealed in a statement on a search warrant released last week. Halls told detectives he saw three rounds of the revolver before it was given to Baldwin, acknowledging that he “should have checked them all, but did not,” according to the statement.
“It speaks very strongly about criminal negligence. It’s kind of ‘you had one job,’ “said Pat McLaughlin, a retired New York City police officer who teaches forensics at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “If you do not double-check this type of thing, you create an exponential risk of having a tragic accident.”
The New Mexico authorities have not provided a timeline for their investigation. During her solitary public news briefing since the shooting, Carmack-Altwies said her office had not ruled out charges against anyone.
Legal documents have described Halls as the person who handed over the weapon to Baldwin and announced “cold gun”, signaling that the revolver was only filled with blanks. In public comments since the statement was released, Halls’ lawyer, Lisa Torraco, has disputed the allegation that the assistant director gave Baldwin the weapon, or that he failed to investigate the rounds in the chamber, which directly contradicts remarks her client made to detectives. . , according to the statement. She also argued that gun safety was not Halls’ responsibility.
Torraco has not responded to requests for comment from The Times. But legal experts said Halls and Guttierez Reed would both have been responsible for gun safety on the set.
“Both of them failed to do their job. It’s inconceivable that a gun is lying around a film set with a live bullet in it,” said David Ring, a Los Angeles prosecutor who has won a number of high-profile personal injury cases. the two people who somehow made it happen are the assistant director and the armor man, and they will both be held criminally liable for it. “
Halls told investigators that Guttierez Reed usually “spun” the revolver cylinder on the set before handing it over to actors, but was not sure if she did it the day of the shooting. Guttierez Reed’s lawyer, Jason Bowles, issued a statement earlier this week, claiming she had done so.
During a live interview last week, Bowles also came up with a bizarre suggestion that someone could have mixed live rounds with the blanks normally used on the set to “sabotage” the production, but offered no proof of his claims. Bowles has not responded to requests for comment from The Times.
Even the wild claim may not help the armored man’s potential defense, according to McLaughlin, who pointed to Guttierez Reed’s admission in the statement that ammunition was “left on a cart on the set, not secured” before the shooting.
“You left it unattended. Any number of people could have interacted with that ammunition while you were not there,” he said, adding that it would be the armored man’s job to account for each piece of ammunition.
If Guttierez Reed were to be charged, it would not be the first time a Hollywood set’s ammunition expert has been brought to justice after a tragic death during filming. When prosecutors filed manslaughter charges in the infamous 1982 helicopter crash that left actor Vic Morrow and two children dead during the filming of “The Twilight Zone: The Movie,” the special effects coordinator was among the five accused.
Prosecutors claimed that the bombings used at the site, which went fatally wrong, were unnecessarily powerful, and the coordinator’s negligence and ruthlessness were partly to blame. A jury eventually acquitted on all charges.
Levenson said prosecutors could also extend beyond those physically present on the day Hutchins died, whose police and prosecutors reveal a pattern of dishonesty or unsafe working conditions on the set. In 2015, a producer on the movie “Midnight Rider” was charged with manslaughter after an assistant camera operator was killed by debris kicked up by a train that crashed into a buck during the filming of the Georgia-based biopic about Gregg Allman .
The production was not allowed to film in the area and was in the middle of filming when a planned train crashed towards them. Executive Producer Jay Sedrish was sentenced to 10 years probation even though he was not on the set at the time of the wreck.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza has admitted that he is investigating rumors that people were involved in shooting on the set, and his detectives found live ammunition from the ranch where the film was filmed. Crew members told The Times that there were at least three previously unintentional discharges on the set, including an incident in which a prop department employee “shot himself in the foot” with a blank.
If a police investigation confirms such reports, or a probable search in emails and other communications between staff reveals similar incidents, manufacturers or executives could also face the risk of criminal exposure, experts said.
“You often hear the buck stop here, and it’s possible that there are people higher up … who are responsible for making sure the set was safe, even if they were not on the set,” Levenson said. “You do not have to be on site when the gun is fired to be in charge.”
Hutchins’ death has brought to mind another infamous death shot on a movie set, the tragic murder of actor Brandon Lee during the filming of “The Crow” in 1993 in North Carolina. Lee was shot in the spine with a .44 caliber bullet fired from a weapon that was allegedly only capable of firing blanks. Prosecutors, however, ultimately refused to prosecute, noting that they could not prove that the conditions on the set corresponded to “intentional and reckless” negligence.
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