An attorney explains why Alec Baldwin has been indicted again for holding the gun that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of ‘Rust’
But those following the tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins may be puzzled: How is Baldwin, 65, heading to court again after involuntary manslaughter charges were brought against him in January 2023 and dropped three months later?
Baldwin was holding a prop gun during rehearsals on the set when it discharged, killing Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza. With the new indictment from a New Mexico grand jury, the Western movie’s producer and star faces up to 18 months in prison, according to The New York Times.
Special prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis dropped initial charges against Baldwin in April citing “new facts” in the case, and said at the time they reserved the right to recharge him. They announced in October, “After extensive investigation over the past several months, additional facts have come to light that we believe show Mr. Baldwin has criminal culpability in the death of Halyna Hutchins and the shooting of Joel Souza.”
Expert Kate Mangels, a criminal defense attorney based in Southern California, tells PEOPLE about why that grand jury — upon seeing such new facts — decided to again determine whether Baldwin’s involvement in the incident deserves a criminal trial.
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What’s the latest update on the Rust shooting case?
An attorney for Hutchins' family, Gloria Allred, said in response to Friday's indictment, "The grand jury has decided that there is sufficient evidence to indict Alec Baldwin on the charge of involuntary manslaughter. We are looking forward to the criminal trial which will determine if he should be convicted for the untimely death of Halyna."
Unlike the charges brought against the actor in January of last year, says Mangels, “These charges are brought by a grand jury, so the prosecution and the original district attorney's office can distance themselves from it.”
A grand jury, she continues, is “impaneled or chosen to hear charges or potential charges, and they hear from the prosecution and from potential witnesses. They don't hear from defense attorneys. So it's not a fully adversarial process the same way a trial is.”
All the New Mexico grand jury needs to determine in this case, Mangels says, is whether “there's sufficient evidence to hold someone to these charges, not that there's enough evidence to convict someone of these charges.”
In addition, Baldwin’s new indictment includes “two counts that can be tried — one or the other, not both,” says Mangels.
Both counts are considered “different theories of involuntary manslaughter,” she explains: negligent use of a firearm, and involuntary manslaughter without due caution or circumspection. “The grand jury is sort of putting it to the people, to the prosecution, saying it's up to you to determine which you want to charge him on.”
Why is Baldwin being charged again?
Investigating the Rust incident, the State of New Mexico hired firearms expert Lucien C. Haag to create a forensic report obtained by PEOPLE in August. The report opined that the trigger of the prop gun must have been pulled with enough force to cause the accident: “Although Alec Baldwin repeatedly denies pulling the trigger, given the tests, findings and observations reported here, the trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver.”
But on Friday, The New York Times indicated that there were issues with the tested gun. The publication reported, "In order to conduct the testing, Mr. Haag had to replace parts of the gun, which had been damaged by the F.B.I. during its own analysis."
“Part of what the new evidence that the public is aware of is that there was a test done on a firearm, and it was a partially original, partially reconstructed firearm,” Mangels tells PEOPLE. “Based on that new evidence, the new prosecution team felt like there was sufficient evidence to recharge him.”
While it remains unclear exactly what testing was done, “it's certainly unusual for there to be inconsistent results and tests by the government, and it's going to be an issue,” says Mangels, if the case is tried in court.
It’s likely that mistakes or inconsistencies in the firearm’s testing “will be a major sticking point in the trial,” she adds. “Baldwin's defense attorneys will focus on the fact that it was a partially reconstructed gun, focus on whatever discrepancies, if any there are any between the multiple tests, just to sow doubt as to the accuracy of these tests and whether they're really sufficient to determine the ultimate issue of whether or not a trigger was pulled.”
What happens now?
Although "the answer is always that it's impossible to predict,” Mangels has theories about what attorneys on both sides of this case will focus on should Baldwin appear in court.
However, don’t be surprised if the case’s next developments are Baldwin’s legal team attempting to prevent that appearance in the first place. “I think that Alec Baldwin's attorneys will make every effort to get rid of this case in some sort of preliminary motions prior to it even going to trial,” says Mangels.
“I'm sure there will be arguments by Mr. Baldwin's attorneys relating to continued prosecution just being for purposes of harassment or other reasons rather than in the interest of justice. There are motions that can be brought to dismiss charges based on government conduct.”
But if the case does proceed to trial, discussions will likely center on the gun and its subsequent forensic reporting. Baldwin’s side will “focus on the insufficiency of the evidence, particularly in the testing,” theorizes Mangels.
“I would expect that there would be extensive testimony by experts who either conduct these sorts of firearm testings or can talk to the validity of the firearm testing. It's not all going to be eyewitness testimony of what actually happened that day. It's going to be additional testimony about these tests.”
Another factor that makes this case noteworthy is that Rust's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, was also previously charged with involuntary manslaughter. She has pled not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial in February in a separate case.
Depending on how Gutierrez-Reed’s trial proceeds, says Mangels, “that will certainly impact the testimony” in Baldwin’s case. “The result of that trial would certainly be closely watched by Baldwin's team,” she says, as it unfolds on “a different timeline.”
If Baldwin is tried and acquitted, could he be indicted again?
One of the few certainties with this case, according to Mangels, is that if the 30 Rock Emmy winner is tried in court and found not guilty, new manslaughter charges can’t be brought as “that brings up constitutional issues with double jeopardy.”
There is a statute of limitations on criminal charges that means prosecutors “can't keep doing this forever,” says Mangels. “You can't be tried for the same charge twice. The reason that they were able to bring new charges here is because of the additional evidence and because he wasn't ever brought to trial on these charges.”
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