Prosecutors could have a hard time convicting Alec Baldwin for the fatal shooting of "Rust" cinematographer Halyna Hutchins because he was assured the gun was safe to handle before it fired a live round, according to several legal experts.
New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies formally charged the "30 Rock" actor and the film's armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed with involuntary manslaughter after more than a year of investigation into the October 2021 shooting.
Prosecutors announced their intention to criminally charge the pair earlier this month.
Baldwin, 64, has said he was told the gun did not contain live rounds when it was handed to him and that he did not pull the trigger. His attorney has called the decision to criminally charge the actor a "terrible miscarriage of justice."
A representative for Baldwin did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Legal experts said they were doubtful that a jury would convict Baldwin over the shooting, which occurred during a rehearsal on the set in October 2021, if the evidence shows the tragedy was an accident that occurred despite safety precautions in place to prevent it.
Criminal liability is a "stretch," unless prosecutors "can show it was absolutely reckless in terms of the level of safety on set," said defense lawyer and former New Mexico US attorney John Anderson, who is not involved in the case.
"Here it sounds like they had multiple safety checks built in," Anderson said.
Carmack-Altwies said her office was focused on justice for the victim.
“In New Mexico, no one is above the law and justice will be served," Carmack-Altwies said in a statement.
The most serious charge prosecutors are pursuing — which carries five years in jail — would require them to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin was more than just negligent.
Legal experts said this would likely require proving his behavior was reckless, or "an extreme departure from the care a reasonable person would exercise in similar circumstances."
In announcing her intent to charge Baldwin, Carmack-Altwies said it was his responsibility to personally ensure the gun was safe to handle and would not fire.
But legal experts questioned whether that standard applies because an on-set weapons expert told Baldwin the gun was safe and contained only "dummy" rounds that would not fire.
They said that criminal charges are rare even in accidental shooting deaths that take place in non-professional settings without safety protocols.
Experts interviewed by Reuters could not cite another instance in which criminal charges stemmed from an accidental shooting death on a film set.
When Bruce Lee's son, Brandon Lee, was fatally shot by an improperly inspected gun on the set of "The Crow" in 1993, prosecutors concluded it was an accident caused by negligence and declined to bring charges.
New Mexico's worker safety agency in April fined the film's production company US$137,000 (about RM584,000) for what they described as willful safety lapses. And civil suits against Baldwin that are pending have claimed systemic cost-cutting led to dangerous conditions on set, allegations Baldwin and the film's production company have denied.
But prosecutors face a much higher burden in a criminal case and will likely need to demonstrate extraordinary safety lapses across the board, legal experts said.
Involuntary manslaughter charges are most common in fatal traffic accidents involving extreme recklessness, such as intoxication or excessive speeding, according to experts.
None of the publicly available information indicates Baldwin's state of mind was reckless enough to meet that standard, said defense attorney and former prosecutor Joshua Ritter.
“We don’t have all of the evidence, but it still feels like prosecutors face an uphill battle. It seems obvious that everyone involved thought they were just rehearsing a scene," Ritter said.