Why Rust Armorer and Assistant Director Could Face Criminal Charges10/30/2021
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Why ‘Rust’ Armorer and Assistant Director Are More Likely to Face Criminal Charges Than Alec Baldwin
”It could escalate from complacency to recklessness that disregards safety and human life,“ one lawyer says as more evidence emerges
Details emerging about the deadly shooting on the set of “Rust” are revealing that the indie Western film’s armorer and assistant director could face criminal charges for their role in the on-set accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, legal experts tell TheWrap.
Based on details around gun safety on set and the inexperience of armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, this investigation could now involve reckless or negligent behavior and provide grounds for criminal prosecution, experts told TheWrap. And, they said, Alec Baldwin faces greater legal danger as a producer on the film than he does as the actor who fired the fatal shot on the New Mexico set.
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“I don’t think they’ll find Alec Baldwin criminally liable for the shooting, because he was told it was a cold gun,” criminal defense attorney Lara Yeretsian said, referring to the all-clear announcement that assistant director Dave Halls gave as Baldwin was handed what was in fact a loaded weapon during a rehearsal. “I would be shocked if that happened. But the armorer and the assistant director are a different story.”
Still, personal injury attorney Miguel Custodio noted, “Although there are no criminal charges at this point, Baldwin’s criminal liability has not been ruled out.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, New Mexico’s First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said she had not ruled out filing criminal charges and that nobody involved with the production had been cleared of wrongdoing.
In addition, authorities said they were investigating reports about lax on-set protocols regarding guns — including TheWrap’s own report that crew members used a gun for live-ammunition target practice just hours before the accident — that could potentially lead to charges of criminal negligence. Carmack-Altwies said Wednesday there was “no precedent whatsoever” for this kind of case Santa Fe County, calling it “both serious and complex.”
Under New Mexico law, involuntary manslaughter does not require “specific intent” of wanting a person’s death. (Involuntary manslaughter is a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico, with a penalty of up to 18 months in jail and $5,000 in fines.) In the 1993 accidental killing of actor Brandon Lee with a prop gun on the set of “The Crow,” the local prosecutor reported evidence of negligence but declined to press criminal charges.
Still, there is a very real threat of charges depending on where the evidence leads. “If investigators can confirm reports of the gun being used for target practice on beer cans off the set, it could escalate from complacency to recklessness that disregards safety and human life,” Custodio said. “And in that instance there could be criminal charges.”
Reps for Baldwin, the production company and Halls did not respond to requests for comment for this story; Gutierrez-Reed could not be reached for comment.
In addition to the on-set target practice, there have been additional questions raised about the functioning of the weapons on set, the safety practices around guns and the relative inexperience of Gutierrez-Reed, who was working on her second-ever film set and had faced complaints about her work on her previous film. (A crew member on “The Old Way” told TheWrap that he demanded that she be fired after several on-set safety mishaps this past summer, including one that prompted a harsh rebuke from star Nicolas Cage.)
“If the reports of the prop gun previously malfunctioning are true, it should have been immediately removed from the set,” Neama Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, told TheWrap. “Nor should staff ever bring live ammunition or engage in target practice. Each of these acts is an independent basis to hold the production company liable, as well as Baldwin as its executive producer.”
Indeed, the initial findings about how Halls and Gutierrez-Reed allowed a loaded gun to be used as a “safe” prop are especially alarming since it’s their responsibility to insure that all on-set firearms are safe for use. Worse, this is not the first gun-related incident on Halls’ watch. On Monday, a producer for the indie film “Freedom’s Path” saidHalls was “terminated” as assistant director from that 2019 shoot after a gun “unexpectedly discharged” on set.
“Their conduct rises to the level of criminal negligence and felony manslaughter,” Rahmani said of Halls and Gutierrez-Reed. “There is insufficient evidence thus far to prosecute Baldwin, however, because he neither inspected the firearm nor had reason to doubt Hall’s representation that it was safe to use.”
But authorities are still gathering evidence to see if a criminal charge can be made. “We can’t say that it was negligence by whom, how many people were involved — we can’t say that with any certainty at this point,” Carmack-Altwies told reporters on Wednesday. “There is a bridge and it will take many more facts, corroborating facts, before we can get to that criminal negligence standard. And again, they’re gathering that as we speak.”
Santa Fe investigators said their investigation is ongoing and they are awaiting on ballistics and other reports from the FBI crime lab — a move that Custodio said is uncommon and shows that investigators are serious about considering the full range of evidence and who might be held criminally responsible.
The production company’s decision to hire the law firm Jenner & Block to conduct an independent investigation also signals that producers may be preparing to mount an aggressive defense for any criminal or civil cases to come. “They will try to show that the producers are not liable, that the shooting comes down to aberrations or uncommon behavior displayed by individuals such as the assistant director or armorer,” Custodio said. “They will also try to show that the film production did nothing wrong in hiring these two individuals. That’s very important because the plaintiffs are going to go after these people to show that their careers clearly demonstrate they were not fit to be on this set.”
Also at that press conference, Santa Fe Sheriff Adan Mendoza said a live round was used in the gun that Baldwin discharged that killed Hutchins, who was standing behind the camera during a rehearsal for a scene in the film. A “lead projectile” was recovered from Souza’s shoulder, Mendoza said, and that it was “apparently” the same round that killed Hutchins. A mix of live rounds along with dummy cartridges and blanks were recovered from the set, approximately 500 rounds of ammunition in total — further raising alarm as to the safety measures for the production of the indie film.