By Jack Queen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Prosecutors could face long odds convincing a jury that Alec Baldwin is criminally liable for the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during the filming of the Western "Rust,” according to several legal experts.
New Mexico District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said on Thursday that her office will file involuntary manslaughter charges against the "30 Rock" actor and the film's armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed following more than a year of investigation into the October 2021 shooting.
Baldwin, 64, has said he was told the gun did not contain live rounds when it was handed to him and that he did not pull the trigger. His attorney on Thursday called the decision to criminally charge the actor a "terrible miscarriage of justice."
Legal experts said they were doubtful that a jury would convict Baldwin over the shooting, which occurred during a rehearsal on the set in October 2021, if the evidence shows the tragedy was an accident that occurred despite safety precautions in place to prevent it.
"It’s a very aggressive charging decision, and the defense has a strong case,” said personal injury attorney and former prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who is not involved in the "Rust" case.
Carmack-Altwies's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The most serious charge prosecutors are pursuing -- which carries five years in jail -- would require them to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin was more than just negligent.
Legal experts said this would likely require proving his behavior was reckless, or "an extreme departure from the care a reasonable person would exercise in similar circumstances."
In announcing the charges Thursday, Carmack-Altwies said during a CNN interview that "every person that handles a gun has a duty to make sure... that it is not going to fire a projectile and kill someone.”
But legal experts questioned whether that standard applies if on-set weapons experts told Baldwin the gun was safe.
They said that criminal charges are rare even in accidental shooting deaths that take place in non-professional settings without safety protocols.
Criminal liability is a "stretch," unless prosecutors "can show it was absolutely reckless in terms of the level of safety on set," said defense lawyer and former New Mexico U.S. attorney John Anderson, who is not involved in the case.
"Here it sounds like they had multiple safety checks built in," Anderson said.
Experts interviewed by Reuters could not cite another instance in which criminal charges stemmed from an accidental shooting death on a film set.
When Bruce Lee's son, Brandon Lee, was fatally shot by an improperly inspected gun on the set of "The Crow" in 1993, prosecutors concluded it was an accident caused by negligence and declined to bring charges.
Andrea Reeb, the special prosecutor appointed in the "Rust" case, said in a statement Thursday that “the evidence clearly shows a pattern of criminal disregard for safety on the ‘Rust’ film set."
New Mexico's worker safety agency in April fined the film's production company $137,000 for what they described as "wilful" safety lapses. And civil suits against Baldwin that are pending have claimed systemic cost-cutting led to dangerous conditions on set, allegations Baldwin and the film's production company have denied.
But prosecutors would face a much higher burden in a criminal case and would likely need to demonstrate extraordinary safety lapses across the board, legal experts said.
Involuntary manslaughter charges are most common in fatal traffic accidents involving extreme recklessness, such as intoxication or excessive speeding, according to experts.
None of the publicly available information indicates Baldwin's state of mind was reckless enough to meet that standard, said defense attorney and former prosecutor Joshua Ritter.
“We don’t have all of the evidence, but it still feels like prosecutors face an uphill battle. It seems obvious that everyone involved thought they were just rehearsing a scene," Ritter said.
(Reporting by Jack Queen in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Deepa Babington)