We previously discussed criminal and civil liability for the tragic shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the movie set of the indie Western “Rust.” That has led to a number of inquiries on the specific liability of actor Alec Baldwin and whether he could be charged criminally. The answer in one word is “yes.” However, much depends on the still unfolding facts around this fatal mishap with the prop gun.
There is no indication that Baldwin knew that that prop gun was “live” or that he personally loaded the gun. To the contrary, recent reports indicate that he was handed the gun by an assistant director who reportedly declared “cold gun,” or a gun with no live ammunition. That is notable since an earlier recorded message of a crew member complained that the incident was the fault of an assistant director who was supposed to check the gun.
If true, Baldwin had little reason as an actor to suspect anything was wrong with the prop. The problem is that Baldwin was not simply an actor. He was also one of the producers on a site that had reportedly experienced prior discharges and complaints about worker safety. Indeed, we now know from accounts that the movie set was the source of long-standing complaints over safety and working conditions. The production company allegedly required workers to drive 50 miles a day rather than pay for hotels, according to witnesses. Workers complained that this left them exhausted on the set.
As a producer, Baldwin could be ultimately implicated in the negligence leading to the shootings.
New Mexico has a provision that allows “involuntary manslaughter” charges for “the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.” If there was a pattern of neglect, including prior discharges from these prop weapons, the producers could be investigated and charged with involuntary manslaughter. Such a charge is a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico, with a penalty of 18 months jail time and up to $5,000 in fines.
The difficulty for criminal defense attorneys in dealing with such charges is that they do not require “specific intent.” Given prior deaths from prop guns (as with Brandon Lee in the movie “The Crow”), the danger of a fatal mistake was foreseeable. However, such charges are rare and unlikely in this case absent stronger evidence of knowledge or involvement by Baldwin in the preparation or handling of these props. For example, in the killing of Lee, it was later determined that the tip of a .44-caliber bullet had become lodged in the barrel of the prop gun weeks before the scene was shot. Actor Michael Massee was told that the gun had blanks when he shot Lee at close range. No criminal charges were brought in the case.
The individuals most at risk of such a charge are the assistant director and prop manager.
The most likely liability for Baldwin would stem from civil liability in the form of a wrongful death action.