Alec Baldwin's 'Rust' shooting trial begins; actor was 'shiny object' of investigation, his attorney says

Alec Baldwin’s criminal trial in the fatal “Rust” shooting hinges on a single question: Was it the Hollywood actor’s responsibility to do a safety check on his gun?

Baldwin’s trial on involuntary manslaughter charges in the 2021 death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins began Wednesday with a prosecutor telling jurors that Baldwin acted negligently because he never bothered to check his gun and frequently went off script during production of the low-budget western near Santa Fe.

Then, during the ill-fated rehearsal on Oct. 21, 2021, Baldwin unexpectedly cocked the hammer of his prop gun and pulled the trigger in a reckless act that caused Hutchins’ death, special prosecutor Erlinda O. Johnson alleged.

One of Baldwin’s attorneys provided jurors with a dramatically different account.

The real problem was not that Baldwin was manipulating his gun; that’s what actors do, Baldwin attorney Alex Spiro said. During his opening statement, Spiro suggested the real crime was that a live bullet had found its way on the New Mexico movie set.

The film’s safety officer and weapons expert were the ones who failed to perform their duties, as did sheriff’s deputies who were unable to figure out the source of the live bullet, Spiro said.

“They didn’t find the lethal bullet — they never did,” Spiro said. “Looking for that shiny object, they found another shiny object. Instead of trying to find the source of the lethal bullet, they focused on Mr. Baldwin.”

Spiro suggested that sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors were under considerable pressure because “the media was swirling.”

Even though investigators long considered the shooting an accident, state officials started scrutinizing Baldwin’s conduct despite knowing he did not bring the bullets onto the set, Spiro said.

Spiro stressed that it was the film’s assistant director and the armorer — not the actor — who were tasked with checking the guns. Baldwin’s role was to realistically portray his character, the outlaw Harland Rust, Spiro said.

“He is deeply focused in that moment on his character,” Spiro said. “He was just acting as he has done for decades. It was the safety experts who let them all down. Alec Baldwin had committed no crime.”

Baldwin was indicted in January of one count of involuntary manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty. His trial is expected to last eight days.

If convicted, he could spend up to 18 months in prison.

“On a movie set, you are allowed to pull the trigger,” Spiro said, adding that Baldwin “did not know or have any reason to believe that gun was loaded with a live bullet.”

After Spiro finished his opening statement and sat beside Baldwin, the actor embraced his attorney.

The 66-year-old actor-producer arrived at the Santa Fe County courthouse at 8 a.m. with his wife, Hilaria. His brother Stephen Baldwin sat with Hilaria Baldwin in the second row of the courtroom, behind the defense table.

Famed victims rights attorney Gloria Allred sat in the first row behind the prosecutors. Allred represents Hutchins’ family members who live in Ukraine as well as “Rust” script supervisor Mamie Mitchell.

The family members and Mitchell have brought negligence lawsuits against Baldwin and the other producers. The producers deny any wrongdoing.

The film’s director, Joel Souza, who was injured in the shooting but recovered, is expected to testify.

“The director will tell you that many times the actor would do his own thing,” Johnson, the prosecutor, said.

She also noted that members of the camera crew had walked off the “Rust” set — hours before the tragic accident.

“They were concerned over safety breaches,” Johnson said.

The 2021 shooting shined a harsh light on New Mexico’s vibrant film community.

“We are not a wealthy state and we work hard to bring industry here and one area that is really starting to thrive is the movie industry,” said Santa Fe resident Gail Anderson Tuesday evening.

The “Rust” shooting “revealed how film sets are managed and how they need to be more tightly managed,” Anderson said.

More than 100 reporters and TV camera operators clustered around the courthouse in downtown Santa Fe on Tuesday.

The trial is being livestreamed by Court TV.

Grand jurors in January determined there was sufficient evidence to charge Baldwin for allegedly acting negligently by pointing a loaded gun at Hutchins without first checking the weapon for ammunition.

In March, a different jury found the armorer Hannah Gutierrez guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The judge sentenced her to 18 months in prison.

Assistant director David Halls last year pleaded no contest to negligent use of a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to a suspended sentence of six months of probation, which he completed last fall.

Now it’s up to the jury to determine whether Baldwin is also culpable.

“I’m not a friend of Alec Baldwin, but that man would never intentionally shoot someone on a set,” Anderson, the Santa Fe resident, said. “It’s just a horrible tragedy.”

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