Voices: What the charges against Alec Baldwin mean – and what’s next

Authorities in New Mexico have formally charged Alec Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter. This follows the death of Halyna Hutchins, a cinematographer who was working on the set of the Western Rust when a gun Baldwin was holding went off, fatally injuring Hutchins.

The announcement came more than a year after Hutchins’s death on 21 October 2021. For months, authorities in Santa Fe investigated the shooting, before eventually returning charges. “After a thorough review of the evidence and the laws of the state of New Mexico, I have determined that there is sufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Alec Baldwin and other members of the Rust film crew,” New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said in a statement.

The question here, as posed by the authorities, is about liability, not the intent. Involuntary manslaughter is generally defined in New Mexico statutes as either “manslaughter committed in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to felony,” or “in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.” In Baldwin’s case, Carmack-Altwies’s office has offered some specificity: Baldwin is being “charged in the alternative” with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. This means if the case goes to trial, a jury will be asked to decide not only whether to acquit or convict Baldwin, but also to pick between two types of involuntary manslaughter to apply to the case.

The first charge, per the district attorney’s office, “can be referred to simply as involuntary manslaughter.” For it to be proven, “there must be underlying negligence.” The second charge is referred to as “involuntary manslaughter in the commission of a lawful act” and “requires proof that there was more than simple negligence involved in a death.” Someone found guilty of either charge faces up to 18 months of imprisonment and a $5,000 fine, though the second one involves a lengthier punishment (five years in jail) if a firearm was involved.

Baldwin, who was both an actor and a co-producer on Rust, isn’t the only person being charged. Armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed is facing the same two counts, and according to the DA’s office, David Halls, an assistant director in the film, has “signed a plea agreement for the charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon.”

“If any one of these three people – Alec Baldwin, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed or David Halls – had done their job, Halyna Hutchins would be alive today. It’s that simple,” Andrea Reeb, a special prosecutor appointed to the case, said in a statement on Thursday. “The evidence clearly shows a pattern of criminal disregard for safety on the Rust film set. In New Mexico, there is no room for film sets that don’t take our state’s commitment to gun safety and public safety seriously.”

Baldwin has maintained that he was not responsible for the incident, and that he was told the gun was “cold”, meaning it didn’t contain live ammunition. In a statement released on Twitter after the shooting, he called Hutchins’s death a “tragic accident.” His attorney Luke Nikas told The Associated Press in a statement on Thursday the charges are “a terrible miscarriage of justice”, and that Baldwin “had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set.”

“We will fight these charges, and we will win,” Nikas added.

Gutierrez-Reed’s attorney Jason Bowles fought back too, describing the charges as “the result of a very flawed investigation and an inaccurate understanding of the full facts.”

“We intend to bring the full truth to light and believe Hannah will be exonerated of wrongdoing by a jury,” Bowles added.

It’s still very early days for the case. The DA’s office filed the charges on 31 January. A judge will then decide whether there is probable cause, which is required to move on to a trial.

In a previous interview with George Stephanopoulos, Baldwin seemed to think it was unlikely he would end up facing criminal charges in Hutchins’s death. "I’ve been told by people who are in the know, in terms of even inside the state, that it’s highly unlikely that I would be charged with anything criminally," he told the ABC host in December 2021. That prediction turned out to be wrong, and – if a judge allows the charges to go through – this could mark the beginning of a lengthy legal saga.