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Alec Baldwin trial: Actor broke the ‘cardinal rules’ of gun safety in ‘Rust’ shooting, prosecutors say in openings

Alec Baldwin trial: Actor broke the ‘cardinal rules’ of gun safety in ‘Rust’ shooting, prosecutors say in openings
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CNN
 — 

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Opening statements began Wednesday in the involuntary manslaughter trial of actor Alec Baldwin, nearly three years after cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the New Mexico set of the Western film “Rust.”

Prosecutor Erlinda Johnson focused on Baldwin’s reckless behavior on set, saying he violated the “cardinal rules of firearm safety” by pointing a gun at a person and pulling the trigger. She also said the evidence would show the firearm was in “perfect order” and did not malfunction.

“When someone plays make-believe with a real gun in a real-life workplace, and while playing make-believe with that gun violates the cardinal rules of firearm safety, people’s lives are endangered and someone could be killed,” she told jurors. “The evidence will show that someone who played make-believe with a real gun and violated the cardinal rules of firearm safety is the defendant, Alexander Baldwin.”

In contrast, the defense blamed the film’s armorer and the first assistant director – jointly in charge of firearm safety on set – for allowing a real bullet to be loaded into the prop gun and failing to make it safe before it reached Baldwin.

“This was an unspeakable tragedy, but Alec Baldwin committed no crime. He was an actor, acting, playing the role of Harlan Rust. An actor playing a character can do things that are lethal,” attorney Alex Spiro said. “These ‘cardinal rules’ are not cardinal rules on a movie set.”

After opening statements, two law enforcement officers who responded to the “Rust” set that day testified about what they saw and did.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of 42-year-old Hutchins. If convicted, he could face up to 18 months in prison.

The trial stems from the fatal shooting on October 21, 2021, at a New Mexico ranch as the cast and crew rehearsed the Western film “Rust.” Baldwin was practicing a “cross draw” – pulling a gun from a holster on the opposite side of his body from his draw hand – with a prop gun when it fired a live round, killing Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza.

Twelve jurors and four alternates were empaneled Tuesday for the trial in Sante Fe. The trial is expected to last for about two weeks.

This is the third criminal case related to the on-set shooting. In March, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the armorer for “Rust,” was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Dave Halls, the assistant director, agreed to plead no contest to negligent use of a deadly weapon, the district attorney for New Mexico’s First Judicial District said. The terms of that deal included six months of probation and a suspended sentence, prosecutors said.

Dueling narratives from prosecution and defense

Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office/AFP/Getty Images

Alec Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the on-set shooting in October 2021.

The shooting occurred when Baldwin and several crew members gathered in a church at the New Mexico ranch to rehearse a scene.

Gutierrez Reed loaded a prop six-shot revolver with what she’s said she believed were “dummy” rounds, a term for ammo that contains no explosive elements but appear to be real, according to investigators and her defense attorney. After a lunch break, Halls fetched the prop gun from a cart outside the church and yelled “cold gun,” indicating it was safe. He then handed the gun to Baldwin.

Baldwin then practiced the “cross draw” move and pointed the gun toward the camera, helmed by Hutchins, Souza and a camera operator. Suddenly, they heard a loud bang.

Hutchins, who was shot in her torso, was transported by helicopter to the hospital and later pronounced dead. Souza, who was hit in the shoulder, was treated at the hospital, and a projectile from a live round was removed from his back.

In opening statements, prosecutors said Baldwin did not follow appropriate safety rules on set, even before the fatal shooting.

When he fired a gun, he did not do a safety check, Johnson alleged. He also used the gun to point at things, cocked the hammer when he was not supposed to and put his finger on the trigger when he was not supposed to, according to Johnson. Forensic testing of the firearm showed that the gun did not malfunction, she alleged.

“After the shooting, Baldwin began to claim he did not pull the trigger,” she said. “The evidence will show, ladies and gentlemen, that’s not possible.”

“He pointed the gun at another human being, cocked the hammer and pulled that trigger, in reckless disregard for Ms. Hutchins’ safety,” she said.

Baldwin has previously stated to CNN that he did not pull the trigger during the fatal shooting, though he said he did cock the hammer of the gun.

“I never took a gun and pointed at somebody and clicked the thing,” Baldwin said in the 2022 interview.

In the defense’s opening statements, Spiro said the prosecution’s attempt to prove Baldwin pulled the trigger did not make him guilty of homicide. The key to the fatal shooting was that others had loaded the prop gun with a live bullet and had cleared it as safe before the gun reached Baldwin.

The prop gun was later damaged during unnecessary testing from the prosecution and investigators, hindering the evidence in the case, Spiro said.

Further, Spiro played a video from the scene in question, in which Baldwin pulls a gun with the camera up close. In the video, he is in continual discussion with people off-camera about how to position himself and how to “whip out” the gun.

“There’s no danger. They wanted him to do it again,” Spiro said.



02:28 – Source: CNN

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Hear the 911 call moments after Alec Baldwin fired prop gun

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After opening statements, the first witness was Nicholas Lefleur, a former deputy with the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office who responded to the “Rust” set after the shooting.

“I was holding the gun, yeah,” Baldwin said when Lefleur approached him, according to body-camera video played in court.

The deputy pulled Baldwin aside and told him not to speak to other people because they could all be witnesses, according to the video. However, the video shows Baldwin and other crew members continuing to discuss what happened in the shooting.

On cross-examination, Lefleur acknowledged he did not repeat his order or tell Baldwin to get away from other people.

Timoteo Benavidez, a former lieutenant with the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, testified about his visit to the set shortly after the shooting.

He obtained the prop gun used in the shooting from Gutierrez Reed and then put it into his vehicle and locked the door, he testified. The gun did not have any rounds in it when he examined it, he said.

Fred Hayes/Getty Images

Halyna Hutchins was killed in the on-set shooting.

The case has been marked by years-long fits and starts with turnovers in prosecutors, a prosecution stalled by questions surrounding the integrity of evidence and a steady spate of motions from Baldwin’s team attempting to get the charge thrown out.

In the run-up to Baldwin’s trial, the judge denied multiple defense motions seeking to throw out the case.

Baldwin’s attorneys had accused prosecutors of misconduct during the grand jury process; had argued the shooting death of Hutchins was an accident and Baldwin was not criminally liable; and had claimed the gun used in the shooting was destroyed during forensic testing by the FBI and the defense could not attempt to recreate the examination.

Baldwin’s prosecution was initially led by New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, a Democrat who later stepped aside, leaving the work to special prosecutors.

One special prosecutor, Andrea Reeb, who also serves as a Republican state legislator, subsequently resigned from the case after Baldwin’s legal team moved to have her disqualified, citing constitutional questions about a lawmaker working for the prosecution.

Controversy surrounding Reeb later escalated after the New York Times obtained communications between Reeb and Carmack-Altwies following her hiring, in which the GOP lawmaker joked that serving on the team prosecuting Baldwin could help her political campaign. Reeb did not respond to a request for comment by the Times.

In April 2023, special prosecutors dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin, citing “new facts” in the case. But in October, prosecutors said “additional facts have come to light,” and Baldwin was indicted by a grand jury in January on two counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors initially sought to argue in court that Baldwin’s role as a producer also opened him up to potential liability for the alleged culture of unsafe practices on the set. However, in a significant victory for the defense, Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer ruled on Monday that Baldwin’s producer role will not be considered at trial.

CNN’s Jack Hannah, Elizabeth Wagmeister, Cheri Mossburg and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.



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