NBC legal expert: Baldwin won't face criminal charges over shooting

Are we sure about that? Legal analyst Lisa Green agrees that the civil liability over the shooting on the set of Rust that resulted in the death of Halyna Hutchins will go off the charts. However, Green tells Savannah Guthrie, it’s clear that Alec Baldwin had no intention of hurting anyone — and that he relied on the propmaster’s advice, relieving him of any criminal negligence:

“By all accounts” does some heavy lifting in this case. We don’t have all accounts yet, which makes this kind of conclusion at least somewhat premature. It also elides over Baldwin’s dual role on the set of Rust as both star and producer. If Baldwin the actor had no reason to suspect that the pistol had a live round in it, that’s one thing — but as producer, Baldwin is at least somewhat responsible for safety on the set and for hiring competent personnel to deal with it.

But, one Hollywood armorer told the New York Post, Baldwin the actor isn’t necessarily off the hook either. According to two witness accounts made public this morning, Baldwin was practicing a cross-draw for an into-the-camera shot when the gun fired and struck Hutchins and director Joel Souza:

Alec Baldwin was practicing a “cross draw” in a church pew that required pointing his weapon at the camera during the prop gun mishap that left cinematographer Halyna Hutchins dead, newly released documents reveal.

Two new witness accounts made public by the Sante Fe Sheriff’s Office on Sunday night describe the harrowing moment the 42-year-old director of photography was shot inside the church building on the New Mexico set of the film “Rust.”

Baldwin was rehearsing the gun-retrieval method from a pew of the mock church at Bonanza Creek Ranch when he aimed at the camera, while both Hutchins and 48-year-old director, Joel Souza stood behind it.

Souza then says he heard a “loud pop” and realized both him and Hutchins were bleeding, according to a police interview.

This may matter because neither Hutchins nor Souza should have been behind the camera while Baldwin practiced the shot. The number-one rule on Hollywood sets, Bryan Carpenter told the Post, is that no one should be in line with the muzzle while practicing or filming, whether or not the pistol is declared a “cold gun.” Baldwin should have waited until Hutchins and Souza made it to the remote area before using the firearm, even in rehearsal:

Alec Baldwin, who accidentally killed his cinematographer on the set of his film “Rust,” should have never pointed a gun at another human, even if he believed it was safe, Hollywood safety experts told The Post. …

“Loaded or unloaded, a weapon never gets pointed at another human being,” Hollywood firearms consultant Bryan Carpenter of Dark Thirty Film Services told The Post. …

For safety, all live firearms used in TV and film productions are typically aimed at a dummy point, not at equipment, cast or crew, Carpenter noted. Guns, he said, are never aimed at a person.

“You never let the muzzle of a weapon cover something you don’t intend to destroy,” said Carpenter, whose New Orleans-based firm has worked on the sets of scores of TV and film productions. “All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.”

That’s standard safety protocol for all firearms. As Jazz wrote yesterday, the idea that this was a “prop gun” is only accurate in the narrowest sense — that it was a pistol used as a prop. Very clearly, however, it was a functioning firearm and should have been treated as such by everyone who handled it, including Baldwin. Given that it or another firearm on the set had previously fired improperly at least twice, as Allahpundit wrote earlier, the issue of negligence becomes more acute with each use of the pistol.

That’s where Baldwin the actor may still face negligence-related criminal charges. No one believes for a second that he intended to harm anyone; Baldwin just wanted to make his movie. However, crew members had walked off the set earlier over working conditions (maybe or maybe not related to safety), the pressure had grown with replacement crew to work quickly, and all of that may have played into Baldwin’s alleged choice to skip the dummy-point safety step while handling the pistol. A prosecutor could certainly fit those circumstances into a negligent-homicide charge. The prosecution of John Landis over the Twilight Zone decapitation deaths of three actors relied on at least somewhat similar arguments, and that didn’t involve Landis operating the helicopter.

Another expert put the blame on Baldwin as well, using a colorful analogy:

Former filmmaker and former US National Shooting Team member Peter Lake put the blame on Baldwin.

“The buck stops with Alec Baldwin on every level,” he told The Post. “It looks very bad for him. At least the captain of the Titanic had the good sense to go down with the ship.”

Green’s conclusion on criminal negligence appears premature, if not Pollyanna-ish at the moment. However, I’d be surprised if Baldwin ends up getting charged with any crime, even if others likely would face prosecution in similar circumstances. Even if he does get charged initially, Baldwin would likely deal down to something other than a homicide charge. Hollywood celebrities tend to avoid such prosecutions over on-set deaths and injuries even where negligence seems obvious; Landis was a very big exception — but he got acquitted. For now it appears that Hutchins’ family isn’t demanding criminal charges. Baldwin and his insurers will still have to write big checks for civil liability, and Baldwin will have to live with this homicide for the rest of his life. And hopefully, Hollywood producers and actors will learn a lesson about firearm safety, but then again, we thought they’d learned that lesson from The Crow.