Alec Baldwin is on trial for 'Rust' shooting: How did we get here?

Nearly three years ago, Alec Baldwin pointed a loaded gun at the cinematographer of the low-budget western movie “Rust.” He thought the Colt .45 was empty; it wasn’t, and the gun fired, killing Halyna Hutchins.

The Oct. 21, 2021 tragedy in New Mexico has led to multiple civil lawsuits, including two brought by Hutchins’ family members (one of which has settled). And this week, Baldwin is scheduled to go on trial in a Santa Fe, N.M. courtroom after being indicted in January on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in Hutchins’ accidental death.

Jury selection begins Tuesday, kicking off an eight-day trial that experts predict will be the most-publicized criminal prosecution in New Mexico’s 112-year history.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the 66-year-old actor-producer could spend up to 18 months in prison.

How did Baldwin’s case — which some experts believe is a stretch by prosecutors — get this far?

Public pressure, high-stakes legal maneuvering and hubris all have played a role.

Production of the movie finished in Montana last year, but “Rust” doesn’t have a release date. In addition, New Mexico officials have denied the movie producers’ request for as much as $1.6 million in tax incentives.

Baldwin and his attorneys declined to comment.

Baldwin’s criminal case suffered multiple setbacks. And Baldwin — long a polarizing figure — has invited additional scrutiny over some of his actions.

In a move questioned by experts, Baldwin agreed to an interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos weeks after the shooting. “I didn’t pull the trigger,” Baldwin said. Instead, he blamed others for the tragedy in a wooden church at Bonanza Creek Ranch, a sprawling stretch of high desert south of Santa Fe.

Baldwin told Stephanopoulos during the December 2021 interview that he pointed the gun at Hutchins during a rehearsal because she had directed him to.

“During this interview, everything changed,” special prosecutor Kari T. Morrissey wrote in an April court filing. “Mr. Baldwin … blamed the incident on Ms. Hutchins.”

Baldwin was told the gun was “cold” that day, meaning it lacked live ammunition. Baldwin and others have emphasized that actors are not tasked with checking guns.

On “Rust,” two crew members, the armorer Hannah Gutierrez and assistant director David Halls, were responsible for safety.

Baldwin’s attorneys have argued Baldwin lacked an awareness that his actions could be dangerous. But prosecutors and weapons experts counter that the first rule of gun use is not pointing it at someone and not pulling the trigger, particularly when someone is standing nearby.

“The law is on the side of the prosecutors in this case,” said Joshua Kastenberg, a law professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “But there’s a belief that the facts lean more towards an acquittal than a conviction.”

For example, the armorer has already been convicted of involuntary manslaughter for Hutchins’ death. Gutierrez is serving time in a New Mexico prison, which Kastenberg said could reinforce a view among some of the Baldwin jurors that the person most responsible for the tragedy has already been prosecuted.

Prosecutors had planned to point to Baldwin’s role as one of the film’s producers, maintaining that he had an obligation to ensure “Rust” was a safe set. But on Monday a judge ruled she won’t allow jurors to consider that.

Crew members have testified previously that the production was rushed and chaotic. Prosecutors maintain that the producers recognized Gutierrez, who was working on just her second film as head armorer, was overwhelmed.

Morrissey plans to introduce evidence — outtakes from the filming of “Rust” — that depicts Baldwin ordering crew members to hurry up.

Kastenberg said the case boils down to: When does negligence become a crime?

“And that’s a pretty high bar,” he said.

The investigation into the “Rust” shooting has faced multiple hurdles and delays, exacerbated by sharp tensions between defense attorneys and prosecutors.

Baldwin has hired a team of eight high-powered lawyers, led by Quinn Emanuel’s Luke Nikas and Alex Spiro, who have accused Morrissey and her predecessors of mistakes and misconduct.

Morrissey has denied such allegations and countered in an April court filing that the defense’s goal is “to ensure the case is not heard on its merits [but] to discredit the prosecution, investigation and witnesses in the media so that a conviction becomes unlikely for reasons other than Mr. Baldwin’s criminal culpability.”

A judge denied Baldwin’s repeated requests to dismiss his indictment, clearing the way for this week’s trial.

Baldwin’s statements to ABC News in 2021 influenced the Santa Fe County sheriff’s investigation, which spent nearly a year on the case.

Still, investigators were unable to determine how live ammunition wound up on the movie set. It was Morrissey who this year — after studying thousands of photographs from the October 2021 production — alleged that Gutierrez brought it with her to New Mexico.

Sheriff’s investigators wanted to see whether Baldwin’s account was plausible.

So the lead detective, Cpl. Alexandria Hancock, ordered violent testing of the gun. An FBI analyst repeatedly used a rawhide mallet to apply force to the gun, eventually breaking the hammer and sear.

Baldwin’s legal team seized on the gun damage, suggesting the weapon was prone to malfunction.

Morrissey joined the case in March 2023, after the district attorney and the initial special prosecutor stepped down, following several missteps.

The following month, Nikas shared with prosecutors evidence that he suggested showed the gun had been modified before Baldwin’s use. Morrissey dropped the involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin, saying she needed time to investigate. She hired a gun expert to dig into the controversy and learn more about the FBI’s destructive tests.

As soon as the charges were dropped, Baldwin traveled to Montana to finish the film.

Since then, the weapon provider testified that he had received the Italian-made Pietta Colt .45 — a fully functional replica of an 1880s revolver — before supplying it to the film production in 2021. Footage from the film also shows Baldwin successfully firing the gun in the days leading up to the tragedy, the prosecutor has said.

Gun expert Lucien Haag also has testified that he rebuilt the gun after the FBI damage, and that it functioned normally.

Haag also insisted that Baldwin would have had to pull the trigger for the gun to fire. And prosecutors revealed that a “Rust” crew member would testify that he saw Baldwin pull the trigger that day.

By last fall, Morrissey began preparing to take the Baldwin case to a grand jury with the intent of refiling criminal charges.

However, Morrissey first offered Baldwin a plea deal that would have ended the actor’s criminal case.

In court documents, Morrissey said she told Baldwin’s team in October that she would abandon the prosecution if the actor pleaded guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon, a misdemeanor, according to the April court filing.

That was the same charge that the “Rust” assistant director, David Halls, had accepted last year, and Morrissey said in the document she felt obligated to offer a similar deal to Baldwin.

But October’s offer soon unraveled,

Morrissey said Baldwin’s team did not respond to her offer. Instead, she learned that it had shared details of the confidential settlement with an NBC News entertainment reporter. She also learned that Baldwin was planning to make a media splash by announcing that he was suing the state of New Mexico.

The prosecutor also became concerned that Baldwin was “actively pressuring” crew members who witnessed the shooting to give interviews in a documentary about him.

Legal experts say Baldwin’s celebrity could help — or hurt — his case.

“There is a sense that runs through the country, not just here in New Mexico but more broadly, that we have two systems of justice,” Kastenberg said. “One for the powerful, famous and wealthy and one for everybody else.”

Another lingering question is whether Baldwin will take the stand toward the end of the trial.

“The decision to testify is Baldwin’s alone,” Kastenberg said. “That’s his right.”

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