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Alec Baldwin's involuntary manslaughter trial starts with witnesses recalling chaotic set shooting

The trial will delve into the confluence of gun safety, high-wattage celebrity and a low-budget Western movie on a remote movie ranch.
APTOPIX Baldwin Set Shooting
Posted at 9:40 PM, Jul 10, 2024

A defense attorney told jurors Wednesday that the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was an "unspeakable tragedy" but that " Alec Baldwin committed no crime; he was an actor, acting."

Baldwin's lawyer Alex Spiro emphasized in his opening statement in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, courtroom that Baldwin, who is on trial for involuntary manslaughter, did exactly what actors always do on the set of the film "Rust," where Hutchins was killed in October 2021.

"I don't have to tell you any more about this, because you've all seen gunfights in movies," Spiro said.

Special prosecutor Erlinda Ocampo Johnson said in her opening statement that before the shooting, Baldwin skipped safety checks and recklessly handled a revolver.

"The evidence will show that someone who played make believe with a real gun and violated the cardinal rules of firearm safety is the defendant, Alexander Baldwin," Ocampo Johnson said.

Spiro replied that "these cardinal rules, they're not cardinal rules on a movie set."

"On a movie set, safety has to occur before a gun is placed in an actor's hand," Spiro told the jury.

The first witness to take the stand was the first law enforcement officer to arrive at Bonanza Creek Ranch after the shooting. Video shown in the courtroom from the body camera of Nicholas LeFleur, then a Santa Fe county sheriff's deputy, captured the frantic efforts to save Hutchins, who looked unconscious as several people attended to her and gave her an oxygen mask. In the courtroom, Baldwin looked at the screen somberly as it played.

Later in the video, LeFleur can be seen telling Baldwin not to speak to the other potential witnesses, but Baldwin repeatedly does.

When special prosecutor Kari Morrissey asked whether the sheriff's deputy handled the situation ideally he responded, "Probably not. But it's what happened."

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Spiro tried to establish that neither LeFleur nor the trial's second witness, former sheriff's Lt. Tim Benavidez, treated the scene as a place where a major crime had occurred. Benavidez, who collected the revolver after the shooting, acknowledged that he was careful with it as much for safety reasons as anything else, but did not wear gloves or take meticulous forensic precautions as he might do for a homicide investigation.

Ocampo Johnson in her opening walked the jurors through the events leading up to Hutchins' death. She said on that day, Baldwin declined multiple opportunities for standard safety checks with armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed before the rehearsal in the small church about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the courthouse where Hutchins, "a vibrant 42-year-old rising star," was killed. She said Baldwin instead "did his own thing."

"He cocks the hammer, points it straight at Miss Hutchins, and fires that gun, sending that live bullet right into Miss Hutchins' body," said Ocampo Johnson.

During the presentation, Baldwin trained his eyes downward on a notepad, away from the jury. He watched Spiro intently during his opening. His wife Hilaria Baldwin, younger brother Stephen Baldwin and older sister Elizabeth Keuchler — who wiped away tears at times — were among the family and friends sitting behind him.

The 16 jurors — 11 women and five men — come from a region with strong currents of gun ownership and safety informed by backcountry hunting. Four of the jurors will be deemed alternates while the other 12 deliberate once they get the case.

Hutchins' death and the wounding of director Joel Souza nearly three years ago sent shock waves through the film industry and led to one felony charge against Baldwin, 66, that could result in up to 18 months in prison.

"It killed an amazing person," Spiro said. "It wounded another, and it changed lives forever."

Baldwin has claimed the gun fired accidentally after he followed instructions to point it toward Hutchins, who was behind the camera. Unaware that it was loaded with a live round, he said he pulled back the hammer — not the trigger — and it fired.

"No one saw him intentionally pull the trigger," Spiro said.

But he said even if Baldwin had pulled it, it still would not have been manslaughter.

"On a movie set, you're allowed to pull that trigger," Spiro said, adding, "that doesn't make it a homicide."

RELATED STORY | New Mexico judge weighs whether to compel testimony from 'Rust' movie armorer in Alec Baldwin trial

The lawyer emphasized that the responsibility for safety lay with the film's armorer, Gutierrez-Reed, who has already been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and assistant director David Halls, who pleaded no contest to negligent use of a deadly weapon in exchange for his testimony.

Baldwin had been told "cold gun" before getting the revolver, not knowing there was a live round in it.

"It had been checked and double checked by those responsible for ensuring the gun was safe," Spiro said. "He did not tamper with, it he did not load it himself. He did not leave it unattended."

Spiro has in recent years become one of the most sought-after defense attorneys in the country. His clients have included Elon Musk, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Megan Thee Stallion.

Baldwin — the star of "Beetlejuice," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "30 Rock" — has been a household name as an actor and public personality for more than three decades.

Spiro said in concluding his opening that witnesses will attest that "no actor in history" has "intercepted a live bullet from a prop gun."

"No one could have imagined or expected an actor to do that," the lawyer said.

Testimony at trial will delve into the mechanics of the weapon and whether it could have fired without a trigger pull. Prosecutors say it couldn't have.

"That gun the defendant had asked to be assigned worked perfectly fine as it was designed," Ocampo Johnson said.

Attorney Gloria Allred sat in the front row of the courtroom audience, a reminder of Baldwin's other legal difficulties. Allred is representing "Rust" script supervisor Mamie Mitchell and Hutchins' sister and parents in a civil lawsuit against Baldwin and other producers.

Allred said that from her observations in court, the jury appeared to be riveted by testimony and evidence, including the police lapel camera video.