‘Rust’ prosecutors drop charges against Alec Baldwin after questions over gun misfire
New Mexico prosecutors have dropped criminal charges against actor Alec Baldwin in the deadly “Rust” shooting, a dramatic reversal after numerous missteps by prosecutors.
The development came after prosecutors received new information in the case — that Baldwin’s prop gun had been modified before being delivered to the low-budget western in October 2021, according to three people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.
The replica of the vintage weapon — a Colt .45 revolver — had been modified , increasing the odds that the gun might have misfired, as Baldwin has said, according to the sources.
Special prosecutors Kari T. Morrissey and Jason J. Lewis confirmed the decision late Thursday, citing new information turned over by law enforcement. The two prosecutors, who joined the case last month, were racing to prepare evidence for a preliminary hearing May 3.
“We cannot proceed under the current time constraints and on the facts and evidence turned over by law enforcement in its existing form,” they said. “We therefore will be dismissing the involuntary manslaughter charges against Mr. Baldwin to conduct further investigation. This decision does not absolve Mr. Baldwin of criminal culpability and charges may be refiled.”
Baldwin has long maintained that he did not pull the trigger when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot during a rehearsal in an old wooden church on a sprawling ranch outside Santa Fe, N.M. The film’s director, Joel Souza, was also wounded but recovered.
The decision to drop the involuntary manslaughter charges comes three weeks after a new special prosecutor team in New Mexico took over the case when the district attorney stepped down.
“We are pleased with the decision to dismiss the case against Alec Baldwin, and we encourage a proper investigation into the facts and circumstances of this tragic accident,” Luke Nikas and Alex Spiro, attorneys for Baldwin, said in a statement, which was first reported by ABC News and Variety.
The judge in the case set a hearing for Friday.
Baldwin, 65, was charged in late January with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Hutchins, a rising star in the film industry. The film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, 25, was also charged.
But since the high-profile charges were announced, the case against Baldwin slowly has been crumbling.
“This case has been botched from the get-go,” said Los Angeles-based trial attorney and former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani. “It’s probably one of the worst prosecutions I’ve ever seen in more than 20 years of practice.”
Thursday’s revelations raised questions about whether the previous team of prosecutors had all of the evidence before deciding to charge Baldwin, Gutierrez Reed and assistant director David Halls. Last month, Halls pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon.
It was also unclear whether the gun had other defects.
Gutierrez Reed — who has acknowledged that she loaded Baldwin’s gun — is still facing the felony charges, the prosecutors said.
“The new special prosecutor team has taken a very diligent and thorough approach to the entire investigation, which we welcome and have always welcomed,” Gutierrez Reed’s attorneys, Jason Bowles and Todd Bullion, said in a statement. “We fully expect at the end of this process that Hannah will also be exonerated.”
Los Angeles entertainment attorney Tre Lovell said the film industry would probably be relieved that charges against Baldwin were dropped.
“Every time an actor is doing a scene, driving a car, handling a firearm … the mere fact that if there’s a serious injury, he or she could be criminally charged, it would have changed the industry,” Lovell said. “The second you start requiring an actor or actress to have to make sure whatever they’re using is safe, you’re putting it in the hands of a nonexpert and you’re making them do other things that he or she wasn’t hired to do.”
The “Rust” investigation has been beset with problems since the day of the shooting, which occurred during a rehearsal after a lunch break. The day was hectic and the film crew was running behind schedule, in large part because most of the camera crew had walked off the job over concerns about safety, including previous accidental gun discharges and the lack of nearby lodging.
Baldwin was practicing a cross-draw maneuver, slowly pulling the pistol from his holster and pointing it at Hutchins, who had wanted to get a camera angle of the barrel of the loaded weapon. She was standing next to the camera.
Minutes before, Gutierrez Reed had brought the weapon into the church, where she gave it to Halls. The assistant director announced the weapon was “cold,” meaning that it did not contain any live ammunition.
But the gun contained five so-called dummy rounds and one lead bullet.
Cameras were not rolling during the rehearsal. The bullet passed through Hutchins’ chest and lodged into the shoulder of Souza, who was standing behind her. Hutchins was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital, about 50 miles away, where she was pronounced dead.
There were miscues even before the district attorney received the case last fall. It took Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies more than a year to complete their criminal investigation, and despite the lengthy span , investigators failed to determine how live bullets ended up on a movie set — a serious breach of film protocols.
Sheriff’s deputies hurried to the scene, the popular movie location Bonanza Creek Ranch, after the shooting, but they failed to keep the witnesses separated. For nearly an hour after the shooting, potential witnesses milled around Baldwin, expressing disbelief and discussing theories about how the tragedy occurred.
Deputies did not search the prop truck, where the guns and ammunition was stored, until a week after the accident, according to Santa Fe County law enforcement records.
Results of a ballistics investigation of the gun by the FBI, released last summer, indicated the gun was functional when Baldwin was handling it. But Baldwin’s attorneys have consistently insisted that finding was flawed, noting that the gun fell apart during the FBI testing.
Problems intensified after New Mexico’s 1st Judicial Dist. Atty. Mary Carmack-Altwies and her office received the case files from the sheriff’s office. Carmack-Altwies, who runs a small office that has been vexed by attorney departures, had brought on board special prosecutor Andrea Reeb, who at the time was running for a seat in the New Mexico Legislature. Reeb intended to prosecute the case.
Initially, Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed were charged with two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter. The most serious charge included a “firearm enhancement” penalty, which prosecutors said carried a maximum five years in prison.
Baldwin’s legal team quickly seized on the goof. They noted the five-year mandatory sentence provision didn’t become law in New Mexico until about seven months after the shooting. In February, prosecutors downgraded the felony charges against Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed, removing the threat that either could spend years in prison.
The two initial prosecutors have both resigned from the case.
Reeb was the first to step down because of her dual role as a member of the prosecution and a member of the Legislature since January.
Her service became untenable after an email of hers from June surfaced. In the message, Reeb asked Carmack-Altwies to publicize Reeb’s role in the Baldwin case, joking, “It might help in my campaign lol,” according to Baldwin’s court filings.
Baldwin’s attorneys had argued the Republican lawmaker’s involvement in the case was politically motivated, which Reeb strenuously denied. Baldwin, who famously lampooned former President Trump on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” is reviled in some conservative circles.
Carmack-Altwies stepped down last month after she unsuccessfully tried to add a special prosecutor to the case, citing her office’s workload.
Gutierrez Reed’s attorneys cried foul, saying Carmack-Altwies couldn’t stay involved if she appointed a special prosecutor. The judge agreed, and Carmack-Altwies stepped down, handing over the case to two veteran litigators from Albuquerque.
Morrissey and Lewis took over late last month before deciding this week to drop the charges against Baldwin.
“The new lawyers have only been on the case for a few weeks, so it’s wise to hit the reset button,” John P. Fishwick Jr., a former U.S. attorney in Virginia, said in an interview. “That will give people more confidence in the prosecution moving forward.”
Fishwick said the case had been “bungled.” He also pointed to previous prosecutors’ seemingly hostile stance toward Baldwin. At one point, the prosecutors criticized Baldwin’s team, saying they were trying to rack up billable hours.
“In their public statements, they were kind of in the face of Alec Baldwin and his team, in a way that you typically don’t see prosecutors behave,” Fishwick said. “That was unusual. And if you are going to take those potshots, you better be ready to back it up in court.”
The prosecution suffered another setback last fall when Hutchins’ widower, Matthew Hutchins, settled his wrongful death civil case against Baldwin and the other “Rust” producers. Hutchins called the tragedy “a terrible accident,” and he joined the film project as an executive producer.
Production of “Rust” has resumed at the Yellowstone Film Ranch in Montana.