Hollywood was stunned following the accidental shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the Alec Baldwin-produced film, Rust, in October 2021. The incident, which also resulted in director Joel Souza being injured, was investigated by the Santa Fe County Sheriff. On January 31, 2023, Baldwin and the film’s armorer were officially charged with involuntary manslaughter, to which both pleaded not guilty. In a surprising development, Baldwin’s attorney claimed on March 9 that the weapon involved in the shooting had been “destroyed.”
An on-set shooting
On October 21, 2021, police responded to a 911 call of a reported shooting at Bonanza Creek Ranch, where Rust is filming. Once there, they found Hutchins had been shot, while Souza was suffering unspecified injuries. Hutchins was airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she was pronounced deceased. Souza was transported by ambulance to CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and was later released.
According to a representative for Baldwin, Hutchins was shot by a prop gun that was wielded by Baldwin. While prop guns are designed to fire blanks made from paper or plastic, a shot from close range can be lethal.
At the time, production company Rust Movie Productions LLC released a statement, saying:
“The entire cast and crew has been absolutely devastated by today’s tragedy, and we send our deepest condolences to Halyna’s family and loved ones. We have halted production on the film for an undetermined period of time and are fully cooperating with the Santa Fe Police Department’s investigation. We will be providing counseling services to everyone connected to the film as we work to process this awful event.”
The weapon contained a live round
It was initially unclear if Baldwin was acting at the time of the shooting or how many rounds were fired, and little was known about the prop weapon. In an email sent to its membership and released by Indiewire, film union IATSE Local 44 said the gun contained a “live round.” It also said the production’s propmaster was not a union member.
The contents of the email were corroborated by Variety.
Baldwin spoke publicly about the incident on Twitter, expressing his sadness over the accident and sharing that he’s cooperating with the ongoing investigation:
“There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours. I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support for him and his family.
“My heart is broken for her husband, her son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”
A settlement and charges
In October of 2022, a year after the incident, Baldwin and the film’s production company reached a settlement with the family of Ms. Hutchins for an undisclosed amount of money. Her husband stated that all parties involved agreed that the shooting was not intentional.
“All of us believe Halyna’s death was a terrible accident,” he indicated in a statement at the time. “I have no interest in engaging in recriminations or attribution of blame.”
Along with the January 2023 announcement that Baldwin would be charged with involuntary manslaughter, it was revealed that the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, would face the same charges. Santa Fe’s District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said in a statement, “I have determined that there is sufficient evidence. On my watch, no one is above the law, and everyone deserves justice.”
On January 31, 2023, Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed were officially charged with involuntary manslaughter, with a penalty of up to five years in prison. As prosecutors filed the charges, they claimed that Baldwin ignored the most basic rule of gun safety when he pointed the weapon at Hutchens.
Did Baldwin miss training sessions?
It’s also been alleged that the actor missed vital training sessions. “Baldwin was provided only minimal training on firearms,” reads the statement of probable cause, which also indicated that he received “limited training” in firearms techniques that included how to check whether a weapon was loaded or not.
Armorer Guiterrez-Reed told investigators she thought Baldwin needed more training and that further safety sessions would be “very important” for filming since his character uses guns throughout the story.
According to court documents, Gutierrez-Reed even set up a private training session with herself and Baldwin. However, their training ended up only being 30 minutes long due to the fact that “Baldwin was distracted and talking on his cell phone to his family during the training,” she told prosecutors. The probable cause statement read, “Had Baldwin performed the required safety checks with the armorer this tragedy would not have occurred.”
Baldwin asked for the conservative prosecutor to be dropped – she later stepped down
On Tuesday, February 7, Alec Baldwin’s defense attorneys sought to disqualify the special prosecutor in the Rust case. In the filed motion, they claim that Andrea Reeb’s status as a state lawmaker legally prohibits her from wielding power in a judicial capacity. Reeb, a Republican, is “exercising either the executive power or the judicial power, and her continued service as a special prosecutor is unconstitutional,” Baldwin’s legal team explained in the motion.
Baldwin’s attorneys refrained from claiming that politics were involved in the decision to file criminal charges but said “[Reeb] must be disqualified” in light of her position.
However, the office of Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies dismissed the motion as “a legal diversion” meant to “distract from the fact that Halyna Hutchins died because of gross negligence and a reckless disregard for safety on the ‘Rust’ film set.”
One prominent defense attorney, Michel Huff, believed Baldwin’s motion could be granted. “[A]llowing a sitting legislator to also act as a prosecutor, essentially enforcing the very laws which she passed, would be an unconstitutional violation of this separation of powers,” he said in an interview with Yahoo. “I would expect the Court to side with Baldwin on this issue.”
Weeks later, on March 14, special prosecutor Reeb announced that she had decided to step down after “much reflection.”
“My priority in this case — and in every case I’ve prosecuted in my 25-year career — has been justice for the victim,” she said. “However, it has become clear that the best way I can ensure justice is served in this case is to step down so that the prosecution can focus on the evidence and the facts.”
‘Rust’ production to resume in spring
In mid-February, 2023, Rust Productions announced that filming would restart in the spring and that some of the original crew would return. Rust‘s costume designer, makeup and hair department heads, stunt coordinator, and director Joel Souza are among those who will rejoin the production. Two safety officers will be added to the crew to the crew, and the use of weapons and ammunition is prohibited.
“My every effort on this film will be devoted to honoring Halyna’s legacy and making her proud,” said director Souza.
Alec Baldwin’s manslaughter charges downgraded
On February 20, Heather Brewer, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe County district attorney announced that prosecutors had downgraded the involuntary manslaughter charges against Alec Baldwin. The actor’s attorneys had argued that he had been incorrectly charged under a version of a New Mexico firearm law that was passed months after the fatal on-set shooting.
Baldwin now faces a maximum of 18 months in prison rather than the five years he would have received under the firearm enhancement law.
Brewer said the prosecution had dropped the firearm enhancement to “avoid further litigious distractions by Mr. Baldwin and his attorneys.”
Two ‘not guilty’ pleas
On Thursday, February 23, Alec Baldwin pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Halyna Hutchins. He waived his first appearance in court, which was scheduled to be held virtually on Friday the 24th. While the actor is free without having to post a bond, he must obey conditions of release that prohibit him from consuming alcohol or possessing firearms or other dangerous weapons.
According to court documents, he may only contact potential witnesses in the capacity of related or unrelated business matters pertaining to finishing the filming of Rust.
Armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed also pleaded not guilty. Her legal team indicated that she’d gotten threats that had required her to file a restraining order against a stalker and argued that she be allowed to keep a weapon in her home under the conditions of her release. The judge ultimately ruled that she could keep a gun at home for self-defense.
Was the weapon destroyed?
During a virtual hearing on Thursday, March 9, one of Baldwin’s attorneys told a judge that the New Mexico government had destroyed the gun from the shooting that killed Hutchins. “I think I should tell the court that the firearm in this case, that’s a great subject of it, was destroyed by the state,” said Alex Spiro. “So that’s obviously an issue,” he continued. He also indicated that he’d like to see the weapon – “or what’s left of it.”
After the proceedings, Heather Brewer, a spokesperson for the office of the First Judicial District Attorney, denied the claim. “The defense’s unexpected statement in the status hearing today that the gun had been destroyed by the state may be a reference to a statement in the FBI’s July 2022 firearms testing report that said damage was done to internal components of the gun during the FBI’s functionality testing. However, the gun still exists and can be used as evidence,” Brewer expressed in a statement.
Halyna Hutchins’ legacy
In response to her death, Hutchins’ friends and colleagues a memorial scholarship in her name, with the purpose of supporting other female cinematographers through education.
Additionally, a classmate of Hutchins’, filmmaker Bandar Albuliwi, created a petition for “Halyna’s Law,” which seeks to ban the use of real guns on film and television sets. Albuliwi is currently working with California state officials to propose legislation that would make it a felony to use real ammunition on sets.
In March of 2022, Hutchins was honored during the 94th Academy Awards’ “In Memoriam” segment. Her image was the fifth to be projected onto the screen during the presentation, following Sidney Poitier, Olympia Dukakis, William Hurt, and Stephen Sondheim.
In late 2022, Hutchins’ good friend Rachel Mason announced an official documentary about her life. A release date has not yet been provided.
Rust tragedy was eerily similar to the accident that took Brandon Lee’s life
The Rust incident was reminiscent of a similar accident in 1993, involving Bruce Lee‘s son, Brandon Lee. During production of The Crow, Lee and actor Michael Massee were filming a death scene when Massee shot his co-star with a prop .44-caliber pistol. The weapon had been improperly loaded, with the remnants of a single dummy bullet still in the chamber. Lee was shot in the stomach, and the bullet lodged near his spine.
He was rushed to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina, where attempts to save his life were unsuccessful. He was pronounced deceased on March 31, 1993, at the age of 28. The cause of death was ruled to be an accident due to negligence.
The incident prompted widespread discussion over safety measures and protocols on movie sets.
When the Rust shooting happened, Lee’s sister Shannon Lee tweeted about the incident via the official Brandon Lee memorial account:
“Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on ‘Rust’. No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”