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Baldwin’s Good, Bad And Ugly Takeaways From ‘Rust’ Trial

By Phillip Bantz

Law360 (March 8, 2024, 4:59 PM EST) — “Rust” armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed’s involuntary manslaughter conviction in the shooting of a cinematographer poses problems for Alec Baldwin as he prepares for trial on a similar charge, but the actor-producer and his lawyers also got an unusual and invaluable preview of the prosecution’s playbook.

Gutierrez-Reed’s closely watched 10-day jury trial in New Mexico state court featured emotional witness testimony about the death of up-and-coming cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, along with behind-the-scenes “Rust” footage, which included video of Baldwin barking orders at the armorer and firing blank rounds near crew members.

An expert witness for the prosecution described Baldwin’s behavior in the footage as “unsafe and nerve-wracking.”

The jury deliberated for about two hours before reaching a guilty verdict Wednesday on the involuntary manslaughter charge, a fourth-degree felony that carries a possible 18-month sentence. Gutierrez-Reed plans to appeal the verdict, according to her attorney.

The swift guilty verdict likely bolstered the prosecution’s confidence while rattling Baldwin and his defense team, John W. Day, a Santa Fe-based criminal defense lawyer and former New Mexico state prosecutor, told Law360.

“I believe they [Baldwin’s team] had a very uncomfortable night last night,” said Day, who is not involved in the “Rust” case, the day after the verdict.

Andrew George, a white collar partner at Baker Botts LLP, called the verdict a “bad development” for Baldwin – not only due to the speed in which it was rendered but also because the prosecution made it clear that Gutierrez-Reed was not solely responsible for Hutchins’ death.

“The fact is that the prosecution got a win here, and I think anyone on the defense side would not see that as a positive thing,” George added.

Prosecutors alleged at trial that Gutierrez-Reed, who was in charge of weapons and ammunition for “Rust,” mistakenly loaded a live round into Baldwin’s gun, which fired inside a church set in Santa Fe in October 2021, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.

As Gutierrez-Reed awaits her sentencing, Baldwin and his defense team, which includes Alex Spiro, who is known for representing celebrities and handling high-profile cases, are preparing for the actor’s trial, which is set to begin July 9 with jury selection. Spiro did not respond to a request for comment.

Baldwin, who has pled not guilty to involuntary manslaughter, has publicly insisted that he was told the gun was safe, that the weapon fired without him pulling the trigger, and that he wasn’t aiming the weapon at anyone.

Special prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis, who took over the case after a series of prosecutorial blunders under Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, are pursuing a two-pronged strategy against Baldwin through alternate involuntary manslaughter charges, following a similar tactic used in the armorer’s trial.

One count alleges Baldwin negligently used a firearm, while the other alleges he acted with such “total disregard or indifference for the safety of others” that an “ordinary person would anticipate that death might occur.” If jurors find Baldwin guilty, he can be convicted of only one of the two counts.

Baldwin is the third and sole remaining defendant in the case. “Rust” first assistant director and safety coordinator David Halls pled no contest to negligent use of a deadly weapon nearly a year ago and was sentenced to six months of probation.

Baldwin could leverage the convictions of Halls and Gutierrez-Reed to his advantage if his case goes to trial, according to David Ring, a partner at Taylor & Ring in Los Angeles.

“The jury is going to know that others have already been held accountable for [Hutchins’] death, which allows Baldwin to say, ‘It wasn’t me. It was [Gutierrez-Reed and Halls] and that’s where the blame lies,'” Ring said. “That’s going to loom large in his trial.”

Baldwin, while not in the courtroom, was an obvious presence throughout Gutierrez-Reed’s trial, from his appearances in the behind-the-scenes “Rust” footage – shown publicly for the first time during the trial – to references that the prosecution and defense made about the actor.

Gutierrez-Reed’s lead counsel, Jason Bowles, told jurors during closing arguments that Baldwin went “off script” when he allegedly pointed his gun at Hutchins just before the shooting. Bowles also argued during the trial that the armorer and other crew members were afraid to stand up to Baldwin, even when he was allegedly being unsafe with guns on set.

During her closing, Morrissey told the jury that “Baldwin’s conduct and lack of gun safety on that day [of the shooting] is something that he’s going to have to answer for,” but added, “That will be with another jury on another day.”

While Baldwin and his attorneys were not in the courtroom, it’s a safe bet that they watched the livestream of the proceedings, which offered the rare opportunity to study key witness testimony, how Morrissey and Lewis operate in court, and the presentation of evidence in the armorer’s case that will likely reappear during Baldwin’s trial.

“The chances of them being surprised at trial, which you always want to avoid, are much lower because they’ve already gotten a pretty significant window into the prosecution’s case,” George saidof Baldwin’s defense team.

The day after Halls, the assistant director, testified at Gutierrez-Reed’s trial, Baldwin’s attorneys notified the court that they planned to call Halls as a defense witness.

Gutierrez-Reed handed Halls the gun, and he failed to check the firearm before passing it to Baldwin, according to a probable cause statement in Halls’ case. Halls, however, offered contradictory testimony during the armorer’s trial, asserting that Gutierrez-Reed actually passed the gun to Baldwin. He also testified that he did not have any concerns about safety on the “Rust” set before the shooting.

“That helps Baldwin,” Ring said. “They’re all going to point at [Gutierrez-Reed] and say this was 100% her responsibility and she failed miserably.”

The prosecution, meanwhile, is expected to focus on Baldwin’s alleged unsafe handling of guns on the”Rust” set as an actor, while also arguing that as a co-producer he had an enhanced responsibility to ensure on-set safety.

The unsafe-weapons-handling aspect of the prosecution’s case could really register with a jury in New Mexico, an “Old West state where guns are a part of mythological and daily life” and many longtime residents learned early on about firearms safety, Day told Law360.

“This is all going to come down to how skillfully Baldwin’s team can divide real life from a movie set,” Day said. “If they can do that and educate the jury on how things work on a film set, versus how they work in daily life, then he’s got a much better chance.”

The state is represented by Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis.

Gutierrez-Reed is represented by Jason Bowles of the Bowles Law Firm, Monnica L. Barreras of the Law Office of Monnica L. Barreras and Todd Bullion.

Baldwin is represented by Luke Nikas and Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP and Heather LeBlanc of LeBlanc Law.

The cases are New Mexico v. Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, case number D-101-CR-2023-0040, and New Mexico v. Alexander Rae Baldwin, case number D-101-CR-2024-0013, in the First Judicial District Court of Santa Fe County.

–Editing by Janice Carter Brown.