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Will Baldwin shooting lead to criminal charges or lawsuits?

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Tragedy struck the set of low-budget Western "Rust" in New Mexico./AFP
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Oct 27, 2021 - 12:45 PM

LOS ANGELES — As the chain of events that led to actor Alec Baldwin fatally shooting a cinematographer becomes clearer, the question remains: who, if anyone, will be held responsible for the death of Halyna Hutchins?

No arrests have been made, but prosecutors have not yet ruled out criminal charges against those involved in the tragedy that struck the set of low-budget Western film “Rust” in New Mexico last Thursday.

Legal experts told AFP that in theory, prosecutors could explore two avenues for charging Baldwin: as the actor who pulled the trigger during a rehearsal or as a producer of the film.

While many facts about the shooting have not yet been established, all agreed that Baldwin is unlikely to be seen as criminally liable for discharging the weapon.

Baldwin was handed the gun by assistant director Dave Halls, who announced that the weapon was safe, using the industry lingo “cold gun.”

“He appears to have reasonably believed that this was not a loaded weapon,” said University of Southern California law professor Gregory Keating.

Involuntary manslaughter would require proof of reckless conduct.

“Alec Baldwin does not appear to have a whole lot of liability… the further you get from the person who’s in charge of the gun, the less likely,” criminal defense lawyer Richard Kaplan, of Kaplan Marino, told AFP.

Baldwin has said in a statement that he is “fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred.”

Meanwhile, “Rust” has 12 credited producers and executive producers, including Baldwin.

In Hollywood, such a title can mean anything from the person with ultimate authority on set to someone who helped to raise money early on in a movie’s production.

It is not yet clear which of those dozen individuals was making on-the-ground decisions about hiring crew and enforcing safety conditions, or the extent of Baldwin’s role in those outcomes.

The production company has not responded to repeated AFP requests for comment.

“I personally feel [Baldwin] would probably be too far removed,” said Kaplan.

“When you’re an A-list actor generally, and you get a producer’s credit, it doesn’t mean you have enhanced responsibilities of a line producer… it’s really just for economic reasons.”

“He just looks like a passive investor as a producer,” agreed Keating.

‘Not personal’ 

Separate from the criminal investigation, the experts said it is highly likely that Hutchins’ family and director Joel Souza, who was also injured in the shooting, will sue.

Lawsuits would likely target the film’s production company, Baldwin and the other producers, as well as “anybody who remotely came into contact with the gun,” said legal consultant Bryan Sullivan.

“I anticipate that everybody’s going to be sued,” he said.

Baldwin is likely to be named in any civil action because of his deep pockets, and because his fame would help draw media coverage, according to Sullivan.

“I doubt the assistant director has substantial wealth, so a plaintiff’s lawyer would definitely want to name Alec Baldwin to get the money in there,” he added.

But legal experts pointed to others involved in the tragedy who could potentially be named, including armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed and Halls.

The role of armorer involves supplying and keeping weapons safe on set, ensuring that they are accounted for at all times, and locked away when not in use.

Entertainment trade website The Wrap reported that crew members had been using the weapons just hours before Hutchins was killed.

Neither Gutierrez-Reed nor Halls could be reached for comment.

Beyond those handling the weapons, the apparent failure of any producer to address on-set safety concerns means all involved are “getting opened up to liability for their own negligence,” said Keating.

“Rust” crew members had complained about lax on-set protocols, and a gun was mistakenly fired at least twice on set in the days before Hutchins’ death, multiple US outlets reported.

Ultimately, for any lawyer representing the family of the deceased, the target of the civil action is “not personal,” said Kaplan.

“They’re just trying to get as much as they can for the family.”

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