‘Aggressive’ Charges Against Alec Baldwin Means a Criminal Trial Is Likely | Analysis

Legal experts say New Mexico prosecutors are taking charges against Baldwin to the max: “It’s a stretch,” one tells TheWrap

alec baldwin Rust

New Mexico prosecutors brought the toughest available charges against Alec Baldwin, with two counts of involuntary manslaughter — one with a gun-related “enhancer” carrying a mandatory five years in prison — that hints at an “aggressive” overall strategy that’s not likely to lead to a plea deal, legal experts told TheWrap on Thursday.

That means a jury trial is imminent, a process that could shed more light on the central mystery of the “Rust” shooting case: How did a live round get into Baldwin’s gun in the first place?

Lawyers who’ve worked both sides of the courtroom suggest the district attorney’s confidence could signal that after a full year of investigation, they’re holding unplayed cards: “We still don’t know all the evidence that the prosecution has,” said Miguel Custodio, Los Angeles attorney and founder of Dubey LLP. “We’re still operating on limited information.”

But even if that critical question is never answered, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies feels investigators have what they need to get Baldwin on the lowest-possible level of legal accountability for the death of another person: involuntary manslaughter. A fourth-degree felony in New Mexico, the crime by itself is punishable by up to 18 months in jail, a sentence that’s commonly converted to probation or public service.

But it’s that second charge, an “enhancement” because a firearm was involved, that brings a far more serious sentence: five years in prison, mandatory.

“That’s a stretch,” said Neama Rahmani, a trial lawyer, former federal prosecutor and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers. “It’s the most aggressive approach they could have taken with this case.”

It’s also a bit of a hedge. Jurors are explicitly not to consider potential sentences while determining criminal guilt, but they’re also human beings — by leveling a two-tiered charge, the DA presents the panel with a way to hold Baldwin accountable without throwing a 64-year old in jail for long, if at all.

“They were smart in these two charges, because if the jury is a little unconvinced on the serious one, then the lesser one is an option,” Custodio said. “[A potential sentence] should not be a factor, but we know that jurors will do their own research. This is one of those where it’s everywhere in the media — I definitely think that there is going to be that star factor.”

The gun-related charge also has a higher burden of proof for prosecutors, who must demonstrate actions beyond “simple” negligence. Rahmani suggested the difference is analogous to the case of a person who caused a fatal accident by looking at their phone versus one who was also highly intoxicated and going 100 mph.

To get there, prosecutors will surely argue that widespread crew accusations of “chaos” and unsafe conditions that surfaced in the days and hours before the shooting were a recipe for disaster that Baldwin should have seen brewing — and for which he was ultimately responsible. In addition to starring on the film, Baldwin is credited as one of the producers.

“It might not be just one smoking-gun — pardon the pun — piece of evidence,” said Josh Ritter, a Los Angeles defense attorney who spent a decade in the DA’s office. “It might be this layer-upon-layer, death by a thousand cuts, look at all the missteps and false assumptions and mistakes that were made kind of case.”

When the charges were announced Thursday, Baldwin’s lawyer put the focus on those around Baldwin, which is already shaping up to be the foundation of his defense.

“This decision distorts Halyna Hutchins’ tragic death and represents a terrible miscarriage of justice,” attorney Luke Nikas said. “Mr. Baldwin had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set. He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds. We will fight these charges, and we will win.”

Baldwin’s lengthy explanations have similarly focused on who was responsible for the fatal load in his Colt .45, suggesting that every action he took that morning was within industry standards. Thursday’s announcement included similar involuntary manslaughter charges against Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the on-set armorer who was working just her second professional job.

But here’s the rub: None of the charges requires either Gutierrez-Reed or Baldwin to have had any idea that a live round was in the gun.

“[Involuntary manslaughter] doesn’t require premeditation or malicious intent,” Ritter said. “Somewhere along there in their investigation and research, they felt that something about what he did that morning was wrong — either he didn’t take necessary steps, or too many wrong steps.”

If a trial comes down to that level of nuance, then it all depends — as does every trial — on the individuals who make up the jury. Rahmani noted that one of many things attorneys routinely consider when selecting jurors is political affiliation; left-leaning jurors tend to favor criminal defendants more than conservatives, generally speaking.

With Baldwin’s politics long worn on his sleeve, not only does he want to play those odds — his legal team will be seeking the most sympathetic panel possible. The defense will be trying to seat “liberals, city people, people from Santa Fe, from Albuquerque. Liberal is almost always better for the defense,” Rahmani said.

No matter their party, prospective jurors will be well aware of the Alec Baldwin “Rust” shooting: “It’s going to be hard to get a panel of folks who don’t have an opinion in New Mexico,” Rahmani said. “If you’re the defense, you know jurors love celebrities.”

One big question mark remains in David Halls, assistant director to Baldwin on “Rust,” who reportedly shouted, “Cold gun!,” moments before it went off in his boss’ hand. Halls signed off on a plea agreement Thursday for negligent use of a deadly weapon, and faces a suspended sentence and six months of probation only — quite light, compared to what Baldwin and Gutierrez are facing.

“Dave Halls is going to have to testify as part of his plea agreement,” said Custodio. “He might be an X factor in this case for the prosecution… I’m curious to see what was talked about [in the room] other than just him yelling, ‘Yeah, the gun’s cold!’ How bad of a set was it? That’s going to also potential hurt Baldwin, testimony from a lot of cast members saying, ‘This place was in chaos’… at the end of the day, it was his set. He needed to make sure the set was safe, and it obviously wasn’t.”

One thing our experts agree on: With things playing out the way they are, a pre-trial plea deal seems off the table.

“Baldwin isn’t going to agree to any prison time,” Rahmani said. “He cares about his reputation and his career, and he was almost unlimited resources to hire the best lawyers in the business. You can’t be this aggressive and then plead it down to some sort of slap on the wrist. You have to think he’s criminally responsible for this — there’s no deal to be had.”

You are reading a WrapPRO exclusive article that has been made available (for free) today. If you would like to have access to all of our member-only stories and virtual events, please CLICK HERE to receive 7 free days of WrapPRO –> The Essential Source for Entertainment Insiders.