By Julia Jacobs
Prosecutors have downgraded the involuntary manslaughter charges against Alec Baldwin, significantly reducing the possible prison time for the actor, who was holding the gun that discharged on the “Rust” movie set, killing the film’s cinematographer.
Baldwin’s lawyers argued this month that the Santa Fe County district attorney had incorrectly charged the actor under a version of a New Mexico firearm law that was passed months after the fatal shooting in October 2021.
If convicted under that law, called a firearm enhancement, Baldwin would have received a minimum prison sentence of five years. Instead, he now faces a maximum of 18 months in prison.
In a statement, Heather Brewer, a spokesperson for the district attorney, said the prosecution had dropped the firearm enhancement to “avoid further litigious distractions by Mr. Baldwin and his attorneys.”
“The prosecution’s priority is securing justice, not securing billable hours for big-city attorneys,” Brewer said Monday.
The altered charges, which were filed Friday, also apply to Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the armorer who was responsible for weapons and ammunition on set. She loaded the gun the day of the shooting with what were supposed to be all dummies, inert cartridges used to resemble real rounds on camera. While Baldwin was drawing his revolver to prepare for a scene, the gun discharged a live round, killing the cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and wounding the director, Joel Souza.
Baldwin has asserted he was not responsible for the fatal shooting, saying he was handed a gun that he was told was “cold,” meaning it did not contain live rounds and was safe to handle.
Lawyers for both Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed had argued that by charging their clients under the firearm enhancement law, the prosecutors appeared to be applying a version of the law that had not been passed until 2022.
The version that was on the New Mexico books when Hutchins was killed says the firearm enhancement applies when a weapon is “brandished” in the commission of a noncapital felony. The newer version imposes a minimum five-year sentence if a firearm was “discharged” in the commission of a noncapital felony.
According to the law’s definition of “brandished,” the action must be done “with intent to intimidate or injure a person.” Baldwin’s lawyers argued in court papers that the prosecutors had not accused the actor of that behavior in legal filings or public statements, instead alleging that the actor had been negligent on set and had repeatedly violated film safety standards, which he denies.
A lawyer for Gutierrez-Reed, Jason Bowles, wrote in court papers that the firearm enhancement could not apply to her because she was not holding the gun when it went off. Instead, prosecutors have accused her of negligent behavior that included not properly checking the rounds that she loaded into the gun. Gutierrez-Reed told investigators that she did check each round that day.
Bowles said the prosecutors’ decision to drop the firearm enhancement “reflected good ethical standards and was correct on the facts and law.” A lawyer for Baldwin, Luke Nikas, declined to comment.
For both defendants, prosecutors have filed two counts in the alternative, meaning that if they are convicted, a jury would decide which definition of involuntary manslaughter applies.
This is not the only challenge Baldwin’s legal team has made to the prosecution’s case. The lawyers have also questioned the constitutionality of the district attorney’s appointment of a special prosecutor, Andrea Reeb. Reeb is also a newly elected state representative, and Baldwin’s lawyers have said that serving in two separate branches of government is unlawful and have asked for her to be disqualified.
A judge will be asked to determine whether there is cause to move forward with the charges filed against Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.