Alec Baldwin gun trial: The ‘Rust’ tragedy seeks an ending

The case against the famous actor and producer opened on Tuesday with jury selection in Santa Fe, almost three years after a bullet killed the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the movie set

Alec Baldwin
Alec Baldwin on Monday in Santa Fe.Ross D. Franklin (Reuters)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

The tragedy of Rust seeks an ending. Actor Alec Baldwin, the producer and star of the independent Western film, will appear in a New Mexico court on Wednesday on charges of involuntary manslaughter for the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on October 21, 2021. Baldwin’s trial will be the end of a long process that seeks to provide justice almost three years after the incident on the movie set in Albuquerque, where a real bullet altered the lives of everyone involved in the production. If convicted, Baldwin could be sentenced to up to 18 months in prison.

The trial is set to begin on Tuesday with the selection of the 12 women and men who will hold Baldwin’s destiny in their hands. The 66-year-old actor has arrived in the capital of New Mexico under the protection of one of the most important law firms in New York. On Tuesday morning he looked earnest but calm. He was dressed in a gray suit and tie and wore thick black rimmed glasses. Leading his defense is Alex Spiro, a 41-year-old lawyer who has represented Elon Musk in the past and who is known for his aggressive style of questioning witnesses. Opening arguments will take place on Wednesday, officially the first day of the trial.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, the law firm representing Baldwin, tried until late June to have the only charge against him dismissed. The judge in charge of the case, Mary Marlowe Sommer, did not allow it. Baldwin will be the second person involved in the production to sit in the dock over the cinematographer’s death. The first was the movie weapons supervisor, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, a young inexperienced woman who was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison in April. In a recorded call from prison, Gutierrez-Reed said she wants the jury to “also send Baldwin to jail.”

Baldwin’s defense cited the armorer among those called to testify during the trial, which will last nine days and could end on Friday, July 19. The judge, however, has questioned Gutierrez-Reed’s participation in this trial, saying that she has seemed reluctant to answer the parties’ questions. Baldwin’s lawyers want to place responsibility for the incident on Gutierrez-Reed, who was supposed to supervise the weapons and ammunition used in the production, and on David Halls, the assistant director and the last person who handled the gun before it reached Baldwin’s hands. Halls pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon, and was sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation as part of a plea deal.

Prosecutors will try to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Baldwin carelessly handled the weapon that killed Hutchins and wounded the film’s director, Joel Souza, in the shoulder. Special Prosecutor Kari Morrissey leads the prosecution team. Morrissey took the case when her predecessor was forced to resign due to a conflict of interest in early 2023. One of her first actions was to drop the charges against Baldwin, believing she did not have a strong enough case. In January of this year, in a twist of script, the prosecutor changed her mind after re-evaluating the evidence that authorities have gathered in more than a year of investigation.

The prosecutor’s strategy will also focus on the Colt.45 revolver that Baldwin held during the rehearsal of the ill-fated scene. Several of the witnesses who will testify in court starting Wednesday were inside the small wooden movie set church where the incident occurred. One of these is Zac Sneesby, a sound engineer and boom operator who was a few feet away from Baldwin when the gun went off. In preliminary interviews with prosecutors, Sneeby said he saw the actor pull the trigger.

Baldwin maintains that he never pulled the trigger, but the hammer. He has upheld this since he first stated it in December 2021, in his first interview after Hutchins’ death. This version has been questioned more than once, first by FBI forensic experts specializing in weapons, who asserted that the revolver had to be fired in order to expel the bullet. Also by Lucien Haag, one of the greatest weapons experts in the United States, who had the opportunity to review the Colt that killed the cinematographer. Haag is one of the prosecutor’s witnesses who will give his account in the coming days.

First victory for the defense

Judge Sommer has given Baldwin an early victory in the process, ruling that Baldwin’s role as producer of the ill-fated movie is irrelevant to the case. The judge’s decision forces prosecutors to modify their strategy. Morrissey and her team were planning to try to convince the jury that the accident was a consequence of a chaotic independent production marked by the lack of safety protocols. This is what some of the members of the production team said in the preliminary hearings. Ross Addiego, a technician who was part of Hutchins’ team, has sued the production, considering that the producers did not comply with the minimum requirements of the film industry.

The defense has included among the witnesses on its behalf Ryan Winterstern, one of the 13 producers of Rust with several movies to his name, including American Pastoral (2016) and The Age of Adaline (2015). He claims that he is an eyewitness to the events that occurred inside the chapel on October 21, the longest day in Alec Baldwin’s life.

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