Alec Baldwin trial: Actor violated ‘cardinal rules’ of gun safety in ‘Rust’ shooting, prosecutors say in opening hearing


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

Prosecutor Erlinda Johnson focused on Baldwin’s reckless behavior on set, saying he violated “cardinal rules of firearm safety” by pointing a weapon at a person and pulling the trigger. She also said the evidence would show the firearm was in “perfect condition” and not defective.

“When someone is playing make-believe with a real gun in a real workplace, and that make-believe play with that gun violates the cardinal rules of gun safety, people’s lives are in danger and someone can get killed,” she told the jury. “The evidence will show that someone who is playing make-believe with a real gun and violating the cardinal rules of gun safety is the defendant, Alexander Baldwin.”

In contrast, the defense blamed the film’s gunsmith and first assistant director — who were jointly responsible for firearms safety on set — for having a real bullet loaded into the prop gun and failing to make the bullet safe before it reached Baldwin.

“This was an unspeakable tragedy, but Alec Baldwin committed no crime. He was an actor, acting, playing the role of Harlan Rust. An actor playing a character can do things that are deadly,” attorney Alex Spiro said. “These ‘cardinal rules’ are not cardinal rules on a movie set.”

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of Hutchins, 42. If convicted, he could face up to 18 months in prison.

The trial is based on the deadly 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 a “cross draw” — pulling a gun from a holster on the opposite side of his body from his drawing hand — with a prop pistol when it fired a live round, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.

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

This is the third criminal case involving the on-set shooting. In March, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the gunsmith on “Rust,” was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Dave Halls, the assistant director, agreed not to plead guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon, according to the New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney’s Office. The terms of that deal include 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 took place when Baldwin and some crew members gathered at a church on the New Mexico ranch to rehearse a scene.

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

Baldwin then practiced the “cross draw” motion and pointed the gun at the camera, led by Hutchins, Souza and a cameraman. Suddenly they heard a loud bang.

Hutchins, who was shot in the torso, was airlifted to hospital and later pronounced dead. Souza, who was hit in the shoulder, was treated at the hospital and a live bullet projectile 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.

When he fired a gun, he did not perform a safety check, Johnson alleged. He also used the gun to point at things, cocked the hammer when he was not supposed to and put his finger on the trigger when he was not supposed to, Johnson said. Forensic examination of the gun showed the gun was not defective, she alleged.

“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 in reckless disregard for Ms. Hutchins’ safety,” she said.

Baldwin has previously told CNN that he did not pull the trigger during the fatal shooting, but he did say he cocked the hammer of the gun.

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

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

The prop gun was later destroyed during unnecessary testing by the prosecution and investigators, compromising evidence in the case, Spiro said.

Spiro also played a video of the scene in question, in which Baldwin pulls a gun with the camera up close. In the video, he is constantly talking to people off-camera about how to position himself and how to “pull” the gun.

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

After the opening statement, the first witness was Nicholas Lefleur, a former deputy sheriff with the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department who came to the set of “Rust” after the shooting.

“I had the gun, yes,” Baldwin said as Lefleur approached him, according to bodycam footage played in court.

The deputy pulled Baldwin aside and told him not to talk to other people because they could all be witnesses, the video said. However, the video shows Baldwin and other crew members continuing to talk about what happened in the shooting.

During cross-examination, Lefleur admitted that he had not repeated his order or told Baldwin to stay away from other people.

Fred Hayes/Getty Images

Halyna Hutchins was killed in the on-set shooting.

The case was marked by years of fits and starts, with changing prosecutors, a prosecution dogged by questions about the integrity of the evidence and a relentless series of motions by Baldwin’s team to dismiss the charges.

In the run-up to Baldwin’s trial, the judge denied several requests defense motions seeking to dismiss the case.

Baldwin’s attorneys accused prosecutors of misconduct during the grand jury trial. They argued that Hutchins’ shooting death was an accident and that Baldwin was not criminally liable. They also claimed that the gun used in the shooting was destroyed during FBI forensic testing and that the defense could not attempt to reconstruct the investigation.

Baldwin’s prosecution was initially led by Mary Carmack-Altwies, the district attorney for New Mexico’s First Judicial District. She was a Democrat but later resigned, leaving the work to special prosecutors.

A special prosecutor, Andrea Reeb, who also serves as a Republican state legislator, later resigned from the case after Baldwin’s legal team filed a motion to disqualify her, citing constitutional questions about a lawmaker working for the DA’s office.

The controversy surrounding Reeb later escalated after The New York Times obtained communications between Reeb and Carmack-Altwies after her appointment, in which the GOP lawmaker joked that serving on 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 charge of involuntary manslaughter 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 producer also exposed him to potential liability for the alleged culture of unsafe practices on set. However, in a major victory for the defense, Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer ruled Monday that Baldwin’s role as 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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