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Less than one month after he was charged, Alec Baldwin has managed to slash five years off of his possible sentence and is awaiting a ruling on a motion to disqualify the special prosecutor appointed to the case over his role in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on the set of Rust.
With momentum on his side, Baldwin will likely take his case to a jury instead of accepting a plea deal if he’s offered one, according to several legal experts consulted by The Hollywood Reporter.
Mary Carmack-Altwies, the district attorney who serves Santa Fe County, filed an amended complaint on Monday downgrading involuntary manslaughter charges against Baldwin and armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. The move, which significantly reduced their possible prison time, came after lawyers for the actor and producer of the low-budget Western argued that their client was unconstitutionally charged with violating a recently-amended firearm enhancement statute that didn’t exist at the time of the incident. Baldwin now faces a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison if convicted.
“In order to avoid further litigious distractions by Mr. Baldwin and his attorneys, the District Attorney and the special prosecutor have removed the firearm enhancement to the involuntary manslaughter charges in the death of Halyna Hutchins on the Rust film set,” Heather Brewer, spokesperson for the New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney, said in a statement obtained by THR. “The prosecution’s priority is securing justice, not securing billable hours for big-city attorneys.”
James Brosnahan, who represented producers for The Crow when Brandon Lee was killed by a bullet on-set, says that the inclusion of the enhancement was a “big whopper mistake” by the prosecution that will embolden Baldwin to vindicate himself at trial. “His career is at the front of his mind,” he explains. “This isn’t going to end in a plea.”
John Anderson, a former U.S. Attorney for the district of New Mexico, agrees that prosecutors dropping the gun enhancement charge will push Baldwin to forego a plea agreement that will likely force him to admit culpability for holding the gun that killed Halyna Hutchins when it discharged. He says: “Downgrading charges and decreasing exposure to incarceration increases the likelihood that defendants stick to their guns and go to trial.”
At the time of the shooting, the gun enhancement statute in question could only be charged if a firearm was “brandished,” meaning that a weapon was used with the “intent to intimidate or injure a person.” It was amended in May, after the incident, to replace the brandishing requirement with a lower standard that a gun was simply discharged “in the commission of a noncapital felony.” New Mexico lawmakers also increased potential prison time from three to five years.
Baldwin’s lawyers, in a motion to dismiss the enhancement, argued that prosecutors are barred from charging their client with a statute that retroactively “increases punishment for existing offenses.”
The district attorney’s office may have included the gun enhancement, which carries a mandatory five year prison sentence, as leverage to corner Baldwin into pleading down to a lesser charge.
“It’s a common, knee-jerk strategy by prosecutors to add a gun enhancement to get people to agree to plead guilty to something less and get rid of a case through a plea,” Brosnahan, who notes that Baldwin likely hasn’t been offered a deal yet, says. “What happens is that the defense has to tell their client that they can get hit for this — that instead of doing three years, they might do eight if they don’t plead guilty.”
Vital to Baldwin’s calculus in whether he accepts a deal will be if he has to concede that he has some degree of responsibility over Hutchins’ death. When pleading guilty, a defendant must admit guilt to the court. Baldwin may opt to gamble on being able to completely walk away from the charges through a jury trial instead of staking his career on the willingness of Hollywood to overlook a plea.
“Alec’s career has been damaged by defending himself in a highly irregular manner that was, at times, highly deluded and out of the Donald Trump school of public relations,” says Eric Schiffer, chairman of crisis PR firm Reputation Management Consultants. “If he’s found not guilty at trial, it would massively help him with the public who are only catching glimpses of scattered headlines.”
Even if a jury concludes he’s guilty, Baldwin could argue for probation instead of prison, which he’d likely be granted since he has no prior criminal history. A judge would’ve had to sentence him to six-and-a-half years if he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter with the firearm enhancement.
A plea agreement could also have been used against the actor in civil cases blaming him for Hutchins’ death. He’s fighting at least five suits, including one filed in February by Hutchins’ parents and sister. Settlements are often introduced as evidence of liability.
In the criminal case, legal experts are optimistic about Baldwin’s chances. They say prosecutors face an uphill battle in convincing a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin is liable when the accident took place shooting a scene for a movie.
“The jury in the case will have a problem with gross negligence,” Brosnahan says. “Where did he proceed into a known danger? The answer for the defense will be that he was told the gun was empty.”
The issue may turn on whether the so-called safety bulletins that outline how guns and ammunition should be handled on-set is allowed as evidence into the trial. The bulletin dictates, among other things, to “treat all firearms as though they are loaded,” “refrain from pointing a firearm at anyone” and to “never place your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.”
While Baldwin has maintained that he didn’t pull the trigger, an FBI report concluded that the gun couldn’t have discharged without doing so.
Joshua Ritter, a defense attorney and former L.A. prosecutor, predicts the case ends in an agreement in which Baldwin pleads guilty to a charge short of manslaughter and is given probation.
“He’s looking at prison time, and he was the one holding the gun in his hand,” he says. “He doesn’t want to put his fate in the hands of 12 jurors.”
Prosecutors’ handling of the case has been called into question. It took 15 months for the district attorney’s office to bring charges, with Carmack-Altwies announcing the case in January more than a week before charges were formally filed.
“As a matter of protocol, you don’t make the announcement in advance,” Anderson says. “This has not been handled well by the district attorney’s office at a number of levels.”
Leading up to Baldwin’s first appearance in the case, which is set for Friday, the actor’s lawyers have also moved to a disqualify special prosecutor Andrea Reeb, who was brought onto the case to assist. They argue that she’s not constitutionally allowed to serve as a state legislator and special prosecutor.
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