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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Victoria Bekiempis

Alec Baldwin: Rust shooting charges downgraded by US prosecutors

Alec Baldwin in New York in December.
Alec Baldwin in New York in December. Baldwin’s lawyers argued that the firearm enhancement law had not been in effect when the fatal shooting took place. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

New Mexico prosecutors have walked away from their efforts to seek a five-year prison sentence for actor Alec Baldwin in the film-set death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, opting instead to pursue an essentially reduced charge against him.

Baldwin, who still faces a count of involuntary manslaughter, now is looking at a maximum of 18 months in prison if convicted. This decision came after Baldwin’s attorneys argued that the firearms enhancement they had tried to attach to the case against the actor was not in effect in state law when the deadly on-set shooting occurred in October 2021.

Baldwin’s attorneys had contended that using the firearms enhancement in the case against him was unconstitutional because it violated a provision in the US constitution that bars changing an action’s legal penalties retroactively.

“The prosecutors committed a basic legal error,” Luke Nikas, one of Baldwin’s attorneys, said in court papers.

Santa Fe prosecutors said they made the decision to eschew legal disputes with Baldwin’s legal team.

“In order to avoid further litigious distractions by Mr Baldwin and his attorneys, [prosecutors] have removed the firearm enhancement to the involuntary manslaughter charges in the death of Halyna Hutchins on the Rust film set,” state officials said in a statement.

“The prosecution’s priority is securing justice, not securing billable hours for big-city attorneys.”

Hutchins was fatally wounded during rehearsals on the set of Rust at a movie ranch outside of Santa Fe. Baldwin was pointing a pistol in Hutchins’ direction when the gun fired, striking her.

One of Rust’s directors, Joel Souza, was also injured. Baldwin has insisted the incident was a “tragic accident” and says he was told the gun was not loaded with live rounds and therefore safe. While officials deemed Hutchins’ death an accident, prosecutors brought involuntary manslaughter charges against Baldwin and set armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed.

One of the involuntary manslaughter charges prosecutors were pursuing included an enhancement relating to firing a gun while committing a felony, which carries a mandatory five-year minimum prison sentence. But that enhancement did not take effect under New Mexico state law until May 2022, or seven months after Hutchins’ death.

If jurors determined that Baldwin or Gutierrez-Reed were guilty, they would have then decided whether they were guilty of involuntary manslaughter with the enhancement and therefore subject to heftier penalties.

The legal team representing Baldwin is fighting prosecutors’ strategies on multiple fronts. They are opposing the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case, Andrea Reeb, arguing that her role as a state lawmaker prohibits her under New Mexico statute from having any prosecutorial authority.

Rust’s assistant director, David Halls, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor negligent use of a deadly weapon. Halls received a suspended sentence and was placed on six months’ probation.

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