Opinion

Alec Baldwin charged with involuntary manslaughter: Did prosecutors overreach?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

Alec Baldwin is facing involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was killed on the set of his film Rust after a gun he was holding accidentally went off. Baldwin has denied responsibility for the shooting, and his attorney says the charges represent a "terrible miscarriage of justice." So are prosecutors justified in charging Baldwin, or did they overreach? Here's what legal experts, those in the film industry, and more are saying about the decision:  

Prosecutors were 'well within the law' 

Prosecutors announced Thursday they will charge Alec Baldwin, as well as Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. Santa Fe district attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies told CNN this was justified based on the "lack of safety and safety standards" on the film's set, and she argued that when Baldwin was handed the prop gun, "he didn't do any of the things that he was supposed to do to make sure that he was safe or that anyone around him was safe." The DA also alleged Baldwin did pull the trigger of the gun, though he has strongly denied this.

"Every person that handles a gun has a duty to make sure that if they are going to handle that gun, point it at someone, and pull the trigger, that it is not going to fire a projectile and kill someone," Carmack-Altwies said. 

Baldwin was a producer on Rust in addition to starring in the film. So actor Ethan Embry argued the ​​involuntary manslaughter charges seemed "appropriate" because "he was a producer/authority figure on the production, which involves culpability." (Carmack-Altwies told CNN that Baldwin is being charged both as an actor and a producer, and he had a "duty to make sure the set was safe" in his latter role.) 

"He's the producer, so he actually does have responsibility, both morally and criminally, for what happened on the set," Harmeet Dhillon, attorney and Republican National Committee chair candidate, told Fox News

In an emailed statement to The Week, Los Angeles personal injury attorney Miguel Custodio argued that because Baldwin allegedly "pulled the trigger, he has to be accountable, plain and simple," adding, "You have to charge the person who pulled the trigger. The DA's office made the right call." Because Baldwin was a producer on the movie, "there is a higher degree of responsibility on him for this," Custodio argued. Former Los Angeles County prosecutor Joshua Ritter also said in an email that Baldwin has "some built-in defenses with the fact that he wasn't the person responsible for making sure the gun was cleared and that there were multiple people on set whose job was to ensure everything was safe," but "at the end of the day, the gun was in his hands." 

On Twitter, Fox News co-host Geraldo Rivera argued prosecutors were "well-within the law" to charge Baldwin. "I feel badly for all, but his gun had a live round, he should have checked [the] weapon before he pulled the trigger, and it was criminally negligent not to do so," Rivera said. 

The charges are 'wrong and uninformed'

But the actors union SAG-AFTRA slammed the charges against Baldwin, arguing in a statement that the death of Halyna Hutchins was "not a failure of duty or a criminal act on the part of any performer."

"The prosecutor's contention that an actor has a duty to ensure the functional and mechanical operation of a firearm on a production set is wrong and uninformed," the union said. "An actor's job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert. Firearms are provided for their use under the guidance of multiple expert professionals directly responsible for the safe and accurate operation of that firearm. In addition, the employer is always responsible for providing a safe work environment at all times, including hiring and supervising the work of professionals trained in weapons." 

Baldwin has repeatedly said he was told the gun did not contain live rounds before it was handed to him. 

The Good Fight co-creator Robert King argued that charging Baldwin "as an actor seems to misunderstand the chain of responsibility on" a film set. "If you're charging the actor, you should be charging the director, all producers, prop master, many others," King continued. "The fact the DA didn't seems to suggest she's trying to make a name for herself." Actor Paul Scheer agreed. "He's a professional who has a job and his focus on that job like the rest of the crew and that is why the responsibility of safety of the gun doesn't fall on his shoulders," Scheer tweeted, arguing it's "not right" that the film's armorer would be charged "at the same level as the actor who was given a gun and told it couldn't fire." 

Similarly, actor Steven Pasquale tweeted that for "an artist to be handed a prop gun, and told [it's] completely safe, and then held responsible when it's not, is outrageous." And on CNN, criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson slammed the charges as "ill-advised" and "ill-informed," adding they set a "very dangerous precedent." 

"The fact that you're going to criminalize this is very problematic," Jackson said, as actors like Baldwin should be able to "reasonably" rely on other members of the crew, e.g. those in charge of handling weapons, "to do their job." 

As far as Baldwin being a producer on the movie goes, Los Angeles entertainment attorney Tre Lovell noted in an emailed statement to The Week, "We need to remember that the title 'producer' is just a credit and doesn't necessarily reflect production responsibility. … The DA may be convinced that his role as a producer factors into his criminal liability, but a jury may see it differently." Lovell added, "Will this prosecution set us on a slippery slope where every time there's an accident on set because an actor is operating equipment, the actor will have to worry about being charged with a crime?" 

Prosecutors may face an uphill battle 

ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams noted on Good Morning America that prosecutors "had the book thrown" at Baldwin, but he argued that the second, more severe involuntary manslaughter charge — which includes a firearm enhancement that could result in a mandatory five-year sentence if Baldwin is convicted — was an "overcharge," so he "wouldn't be surprised" if that's thrown out. Abrams also told Law & Crime prosecutors will have a "hard time getting a conviction," assuming the case goes to trial. "Everyone agrees this was a mistake," Abrams said. "Everyone. It's just a question of whether it was a criminal mistake." 

But Fox News co-host Geraldo Rivera disagreed, arguing Baldwin already "convicted himself" when he claimed he didn't point the gun at Hutchins and pull the trigger, only for an FBI forensic report to conclude the gun could not have fired without the trigger being pulled. "You have a case here that is as close to a slam dunk as you're going to get," Rivera concluded. 

On NBC News, though, legal analyst Danny Cevallos wasn't convinced this "hurts Alec Baldwin that much," as the actor can still make the case that he "believed this was a cold gun" even if he did pull the trigger. Indeed, former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani said in an emailed statement to The Week that Baldwin "has a good defense, because he had every reason to believe the gun that was handed to him was safe," and if the case goes before a jury, he "will garner a lot of sympathy." 

Regardless of the outcome, criminal defense attorney Rachel Fiset said in an email the case sends an "incredibly strong message to Hollywood," underlining why everyone from actors to directors and producers must "recognize that they need to make safety a first priority."

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