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Alec Baldwin trial: Actor violated 'basic rules' of gun safety during 'Rust' shooting, prosecutors say in opening statements



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Opening statements began Wednesday in the involuntary manslaughter trial of actor Alec Baldwin, nearly three years after cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the New Mexico set of the Western film “Rust.”

Prosecutor Erlinda Johnson focused on Baldwin's reckless behavior on set, saying he violated “basic gun safety rules” by pointing a gun at a person and pulling the trigger. She also said evidence would show the gun was in “perfect condition” and did not malfunction.

“When someone is playing pretend with a real gun in a real workplace and it violates the cardinal rules of firearm safety, people’s lives are in danger and someone could get killed,” she told jurors. “The evidence will show that the person who played pretend with a real gun and violated the cardinal rules of firearm safety is the defendant, Alexander Baldwin.”

In contrast, the defense blamed the film's gunsmith and first assistant director – jointly responsible for gun safety on the set – for allowing a real bullet to be loaded into the fake gun and failing to secure it before it hit Baldwin.

“This is an unspeakable tragedy, but Alec Baldwin did not commit a crime. He was an actor, he was playing Harlan Rust. An actor playing a character can do things that are deadly,” said attorney Alex Spiro. “These ‘cardinal rules’ are not cardinal rules on a movie set.”

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Hutchins, 42. If convicted, he faces up to 18 months in prison.

The trial stems from the fatal shooting on Oct. 21, 2021, at a New Mexico ranch while the cast and crew were rehearsing for the Western film “Rust.” Baldwin was practicing “cross-firing” — drawing a gun from a holster on the opposite side of his body from his drawing hand — with a toy pistol when he fired a live round, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.

Twelve jurors and four alternates were seated Tuesday for the trial in Santa Fe. The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

This is the third criminal case related to the on-set shooting. In March, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the gunsmith on “Rust,” was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Dave Halls, the assistant director, agreed to plead not guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon, the attorney for New Mexico’s First Judicial District said. Terms of the deal included six months of probation. and a suspended sentence, prosecutors said.

Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office/AFP/Getty Images

Alec Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the October 2021 on-set shooting.

The shooting occurred as Baldwin and several crew members gathered at a church on the New Mexico ranch to rehearse a scene.

Gutierrez Reed loaded a six-shot replica revolver with what she believed to be “dummy” bullets, a term for ammunition that does not contain explosives but appears real, according to investigators and her attorney. After a lunch break, Halls retrieved the replica gun from a cart outside the church and yelled “cold gun,” indicating it was safe. He then handed the weapon to Baldwin.

Baldwin then practiced the “cross draw” motion and pointed the gun at the camera, which was being directed by Hutchins, Souza and a camera operator. Suddenly, they heard a loud bang.

Hutchins, who was shot in the torso, was airlifted to a hospital and later pronounced dead. Souza, who was shot in the shoulder, was treated at the hospital and a live round was removed from his back.

In their opening statements, prosecutors said Baldwin failed to follow proper safety rules on set, even before the fatal shooting.

According to Johnson, when he fired a firearm, he failed to perform a safety check. He also used the weapon to point at objects, cocked the hammer when he wasn't supposed to and put his finger on the trigger when he wasn't supposed to. Forensic testing of the firearm showed that the weapon was not malfunctioning, she said.

“After the shooting, Baldwin began claiming that he did not pull the trigger,” she said. “The evidence will show, ladies and gentlemen, that that is not possible.”

“He pointed the gun at another human being, cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger, with complete disregard for Ms. Hutchins' safety,” she said.

Baldwin previously told CNN that he did not pull the trigger in the fatal shooting, although he claimed to have cocked the hammer of the gun.

“I never picked up a gun and pointed it at somebody and clicked the object,” Baldwin said in the 2022 interview.

In opening statements for the defense, Spiro said the prosecution's attempt to prove that Baldwin pulled the trigger did not make him guilty of homicide. The key to the fatal shooting was that others had loaded the fake gun with a live round and declared it safe before the weapon reached Baldwin.

The fake gun was later destroyed during unnecessary testing by prosecutors and investigators, hampering the collection of evidence in the case, Spiro said.

Spiro also released a video of the scene in question, in which Baldwin pulls out a gun with the camera in close-up. In the video, he continually discusses with people off-camera how to position himself and “pull out” the gun.

“There's no danger. They wanted him to do it again,” Spiro said.

After opening statements, the first witness was Nicholas Lefleur, a former Santa Fe Sheriff's Department deputy who responded to the “Rust” group after the shooting.

“I was holding the gun, yes,” Baldwin said as Lefleur approached him, according to body camera video played in court.

The officer took Baldwin aside and told him not to talk to anyone else because they could all be witnesses, according to the video. However, the video shows Baldwin and other members of the team continuing to discuss what happened during the shooting.

During cross-examination, Lefleur acknowledged that he did not repeat his order or tell Baldwin to move away from the other people.

Fred Hayes/Getty Images

Halyna Hutchins was killed in the on-set shooting.

The case has been marked by ups and downs in recent years, with changes in prosecutors, prosecutions stalled by questions surrounding the integrity of the evidence and a steady stream of motions by Baldwin's team trying to get the charges dropped.

As Baldwin's trial approached, the judge denied several requests. defense motions to dismiss the case.

Baldwin's attorneys had accused prosecutors of misconduct during the grand jury process; argued that Hutchins' shooting death was an accident and that Baldwin was not criminally responsible; and claimed that the gun used in the shooting was destroyed during forensic testing by the FBI and that the defense could not attempt to recreate the examination.

The prosecution of Baldwin was initially led by New Mexico's First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, a Democrat who later stepped down, leaving the job to special prosecutors.

A special prosecutor, Andrea Reeb, who is also a Republican state legislator, later resigned from the case after Baldwin's legal team asked for her disqualification, citing constitutional issues regarding a lawmaker working for the state's attorney general.

The controversy surrounding Reeb deepened after The New York Times obtained communications between Reeb and Carmack-Altwies after she was hired, in which the Republican lawmaker joked that being part of the team prosecuting Baldwin could help her political campaign. Reeb did not respond to a request for comment from The Times.

In April 2023, special prosecutors dismissed a manslaughter charge against Baldwin, citing “new facts” in the case. But in October, prosecutors said “additional facts have come to light,” and Baldwin was indicted by a grand jury in January on two counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors initially tried to argue in court that Baldwin's role as a producer also exposed him to potential liability for the alleged culture of dangerous practices on the set. However, in a significant victory for the defense, Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer ruled Monday that Baldwin's role as a producer will not be considered at trial.

CNN's Jack Hannah, Elizabeth Wagmeister, Cheri Mossburg and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.

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