New Mexico weighs whether to toss Alec Baldwin criminal charges in 'Rust' shooting

An man in a gray suit stands behind a lectern and in front of a bright blue backdrop
Alec Baldwin was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Halyna Hutchins on the "Rust" movie set. (Evan Agostini / Invision / Associated Press)

A New Mexico judge is weighing whether to dismiss involuntary manslaughter charges against Alec Baldwin for his alleged role in the 2021 shooting death of the "Rust" movie cinematographer.

Baldwin's attorneys argued during a court hearing Friday that special prosecutor Kari T. Morrissey had abused her power by allegedly withholding "significant evidence," including witnesses favorable to Baldwin, during a January grand jury proceeding.

The 66-year-old actor's lawyers said he was a victim of an "overzealous prosecutor" who steered grand jury proceedings in an effort to win an indictment in the high-profile case. At issue is whether the grand jury had been fully advised that they could hear from Baldwin's witnesses during the proceedings. The grand jurors spent a day and a half questioning witnesses who were introduced by the prosecutors.

"The fix was in," Baldwin attorney Alex Spiro told the judge Friday.

The grand jury indicted Baldwin on an involuntary manslaughter charge in the shooting death of Halyna Hutchins, the 42-year-old cinematographer, who was rehearsing a scene with Baldwin on Oct. 21, 2021. Baldwin has pleaded not guilty.

At the conclusion of Friday's hearing, New Mexico First Judicial District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer said she would issue her ruling next week. Should she dismiss the case, it would mark the second time that the felony charges against Baldwin were dropped.

Read more: Alec Baldwin charged again with involuntary manslaughter in 'Rust' shooting

Marlowe Sommer's decision is expected less than two months before Baldwin is scheduled to go on trial in a Santa Fe courtroom.

During the hearing, which was conducted virtually, Morrissey denied that she had acted in bad faith. She said she didn't prevent jurors from getting answers to their questions or from seeking additional information. She told the judge that grand jurors had been given written instructions that outlined their ability to quiz other witnesses, including those favorable to the defense.

But because the jurors didn't ask to hear from the witnesses who were on a list supplied by Baldwin's lawyers, several key figures in the tragedy, including film director Joel Souza, property master Sarah Zachry and assistant director David Halls, were not called to testify. Instead, jurors heard from police officers, a crew member who was in the church and expert witnesses hired by prosecutors.

On the day of the shooting, Hutchins, Baldwin, Souza and about a dozen other crew members were gathered in an old wooden church at Bonanza Creek Ranch, south of Santa Fe, preparing for a scene. Hutchins, according to the actor, told him to pull his Colt .45 revolver from his holster and point it at the camera for an extreme close-up view. That's when the gun went off.

Hutchins died from her wounds. Souza was injured and recovered.

Last month, Marlowe Sommer sentenced the film's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez, to 18 months in a New Mexico women's prison for her role in the shooting. Morrissey argued that Gutierrez was criminally negligent by allegedly bringing the live ammunition to the movie production and unwittingly loading one of the lead bullets into Baldwin's gun. Gutierrez denies bringing the ammunition on set.

Baldwin's prosecution has long been fraught.

Morrissey and her law partner Jason J. Lewis joined the case last year after the first team of prosecutors was forced to step down due to missteps, including trying to charge Baldwin on a penalty enhancement that wasn't in effect at the time of the tragedy.

"The government looked a little sophomoric and unprofessional when they charged him for a crime that wasn't a crime at the time," said Los Angeles litigator Tre Lovell, who is not involved in the "Rust" shooting matter. "That was embarrassing."

The original prosecutors also displayed bluster in media interviews, making statements about the need to hold Baldwin responsible for his actions. Defense attorneys have argued that such commentary was out of line and prejudicial against the actor.

Shortly after Morrissey and Lewis joined the case, they dropped the charges against Baldwin. At the time, they said they needed more time to review evidence and address issues raised by Baldwin's team. Morrissey and Lewis reserved the right to refile the charges.

Immediately after the charges were dropped, Baldwin traveled to Montana to finish the filming of "Rust."

On Friday, Morrissey said last year's decision to drop the charges was made at the request of Baldwin's lead attorney, Luke Nikas, who had presented evidence that the gun Baldwin was using had been modified. Subsequent tests showed the gun was functional that day, but during FBI testing in 2022, the gun was broken by forensic analysts who wanted to see how much pressure needed to be applied for the hammer to drop.

The damaged gun is one of several complications that prosecutors are facing. Legal experts have said that winning a conviction in Baldwin's case is expected to be more difficult than in the trial of Gutierrez, whose job was to make sure the weapons were safe.

Baldwin was handed the prop gun that day and was told that it was “cold,” meaning there was no ammunition inside. In reality, the chamber of the revolver contained six rounds — five so-called dummies and the lead bullet that killed Hutchins.

"The state has not even alleged that Baldwin had a subjective awareness of a substantial risk that the firearm held live ammunition," Nikas argued in the motion to dismiss the charges. "Without a subjective awareness, he could not have committed the crime of involuntary manslaughter, which requires that the defendant consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his actions could cause another person's death."

Baldwin has argued, with support from Hollywood’s performers’ union SAG-AFTRA, that it wasn’t his job to be the gun safety officer on set.

The actor has said he was relying on other professionals to do their jobs to ensure a safe production.

Read more: What does the 'Rust' armorer's criminal conviction mean for Alec Baldwin's case?

Prosecutors have an obligation to present evidence in a "fair and impartial manner," Baldwin's attorneys said.

The judge grilled Morrissey on her thinking at the time, including an instance when she had interrupted a sheriff's deputy and prevented her from answering a question about gun safety measures on set. Morrissey said that deputy was not an expert in film set protocols and that she instead wanted jurors to get "the most accurate information," which would come from a veteran film crew member who was an expert witness.

Baldwin's attorneys were also sharply critical of Morrissey for divulging during a media interview the date the grand jury was expected to meet. Morrissey said she took responsibility for providing to a reporter the initial date, which had been scheduled for mid-November. However, the matter was postponed, and the case wasn't brought before the grand jury until two months later, in mid-January.

Read more: SAG-AFTRA defends Alec Baldwin after 'Rust' criminal charge: 'An actor’s job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert'

Lovell, the L.A. entertainment attorney, said he believes the case will go to trial and that efforts to throw out the indictment will be unsuccessful.

"Courts are really reluctant to dismiss cases brought by a grand jury," Lovell said. "Courts have limited ability to review what goes to a grand jury unless it was provided in bad faith."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.