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Opening statement aims to provide roadmap for Alec Baldwin’s manslaughter case

SANTA FE, NM — A jury will hear opening arguments Wednesday in Alec Baldwin’s manslaughter trial in the fatal shooting of a cameraman, a trial that will explore the nexus of gun safety, celebrity and a low-budget Western filmed on a remote ranch.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys on Tuesday selected 16 jurors — 11 women and five men — assembling a jury from a region where gun ownership and security are high because of hunting in remote areas. Four of the jurors will serve as alternates while the other 12 will deliberate once they receive the case.

The gunshot death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, a 42-year-old rising star in her field, nearly three years ago sent shockwaves through the film industry and led to charges against Baldwin that could result in a prison sentence of up to 18 months.

Baldwin pleaded not guilty as he returned to the desert Southwest to attend the trial at a courthouse in downtown Santa Fe, a short drive from the movie ranch where scenes from “Rust” were filmed.

Baldwin claims the gun accidentally fired after he followed instructions to point it at Hutchins, who was behind the camera. Not knowing it was loaded with live ammunition, he said he pulled back the hammer – not the trigger – and a shot fired.

Prosecutors want to present evidence that Baldwin “deviated from the script” and disregarded basic industry standards for gun safety when he pointed the gun at Hutchins on October 21, 2021.

“Ultimately, the prosecutor’s main theory is that there was a gun involved and Baldwin had a gun in his hand. And whether it’s a movie set or a hunting safety course, you’re responsible for what comes out the end of the gun,” said John Day, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor in Santa Fe.

Actor Alec Baldwin leaves the courtroom after jury selection in his manslaughter trial, Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Santa Fe, N.M. Photo credit: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Baldwin’s attorney, Alex Spiro, questioned potential jurors on Tuesday about their strong views on gun safety, asking whether a person should take full responsibility for whether a gun is loaded or “can rely on experts. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

Most respondents said they always treat a gun as if it were loaded.

Baldwin, the star of “Beetlejuice,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “30 Rock” who has been a household name as an actor and public figure for more than three decades, also served as co-producer of “Rust,” which had an initial budget of about $7.5 million – a low sum by union standards. Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer ruled shortly before trial that his status as a producer was not relevant to the case.

Industrial safety investigators and earlier court testimony confirmed that two misfires occurred on set before the fatal shooting. On the eve of Hutchins’ death, six crew members left the set because they were concerned about hotel accommodations and safety.

Prosecutor Kari Morrissey leaves court after jury selection in the manslaughter trial of actor Alec Baldwin, Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Santa Fe, N.M. Photo credit: AP/Ross D. Franklin

At the request of prosecutors who say the investigation is unreliable, Marlowe Sommer has kept a summary of these findings under wraps.

In court documents, defense attorneys have pointed out that gunsmith Hannah Gutierrez-Reed has already been blamed for the shooting. There are also statements that the gun was checked by an assistant director before it was given to Baldwin. In addition, the shooting was incomprehensible and shocking to the entire film crew, who assumed there was no live ammunition on set.

Gutierrez-Reed is serving an 18-month prison sentence while she appeals her March manslaughter conviction. Prosecutors blame her for allowing live ammunition to slip onto the film set undetected. The trial also showed a video of Baldwin urging gun supervisors to reload his revolver, using the gun as a targeting stick.

The prosecution has two alternative standards of proof for the charge. One is based on the negligent use of a firearm. The other is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin acted with complete disregard or indifference for the safety of others.

Testimony in court will address deficiencies in a final safety check of the weapon before Baldwin began rehearsals, as well as the mechanics of the weapon and whether it could have been fired without a trigger. The live bullet that killed Hutchins also wounded director Joel Souza.

Day says Baldwin’s insistence that he never pulled the trigger – first expressed in an interview with ABC News in December 2021 – limits the defense’s options at trial.

“Because he said that to George Stephanopoulos, the defense has to try to prove that the gun will go off if you look at it at an angle,” Day said. “They also have to bring in experts from the film industry who can say, ‘You know, if someone gives an actor a gun and tells them it’s safe, they should believe them.'”

Los Angeles-based civil defense attorney Mark Sedlander said it is unusual for a workplace death to go to trial, but the fatal shooting at Rust touches on fundamental workplace safety concerns.

“This is the case of a woman who was tragically killed while she was at work, away from her family, doing her job, just like Americans across the country. She went to work one day and never came back,” said Sedlander of the law firm Mancini Shenk.

In April 2023, prosecutors initially dismissed a manslaughter charge against Baldwin on the grounds that they had been informed before the shooting that the weapon might have been modified and malfunctioned.

A more recent analysis of the weapon commissioned by the prosecutor’s office concluded that “the trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer.”

Defense attorneys argue that the FBI’s destructive testing of the weapon, which broke parts of the firing mechanism, may have destroyed evidence that could potentially exonerate Baldwin.

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Dalton reported from Los Angeles.