‘Rust’ armorer trial starts Thursday, jury sworn in

February 22, 2024 - 8:46 AM
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Alec Baldwin-New York-Jan-2023
Actor Alec Baldwin departs his home, as he will be charged with involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie "Rust", in New York, U.S., January 31, 2023. (Reuters/David 'Dee' Delgado)

 The trial of “Rust” chief weapons handler Hannah Gutierrez over the death of the film’s cinematographer will start on Thursday, in a case likely to shape actor Alec Baldwin’s defense of his role in Hollywood’s first on-set shooting fatality in nearly 30 years.

Rising-star cinematographer Halyna Hutchins died in 2021 after Gutierrez mistakenly loaded a live round into a reproduction Colt .45 revolver that Baldwin was rehearsing with on a movie set outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Gutierrez and Baldwin both face a charge of involuntary manslaughter. The revolver Baldwin was holding fired the round that killed Hutchins. He said he cocked the gun but did not pull the trigger. Baldwin’s trial date has not been set.

Jurors were sworn in late Wednesday afternoon by District Court Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer at a court in downtown Santa Fe where the trial will take place.

Of the 12 jurors selected, seven are male and five are female. Four alternate jurors are male, court spokesman Barry Massey said.

In opening statements on Thursday, New Mexico state prosecutors are expected to tell jurors the 27-year-old Gutierrez showed reckless disregard for safety by allegedly bringing live rounds on set – an act strictly forbidden – and by using drugs like cocaine and marijuana that impaired her ability to do a job crucial to safety on set.

Should a jury believe that Gutierrez, who trained with her stepfather, famed movie armorer Thell Reed, showed criminal negligence, she could be convicted of the involuntary manslaughter charge, as well as an evidence tampering charge alleging she passed a bag of cocaine to a crew member after the shooting to prevent police finding it. Each charge carries up to 18 months imprisonment.

“If the prosecution can draw a nexus between alcohol and drug use, or the effects of the drugs, while she was at work maintaining the weaponry, she’s in a lot of trouble,” said University of New Mexico law professor Joshua Kastenberg.

Her lawyers say there is no evidence drugs impaired Gutierrez’s work. She was not tested for drugs after the shooting.

Closely watched trial

The death of Hutchins was the first on-set fatal shooting since actor Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of the late martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, died in 1993 during filming of “The Crow” when a blank round fired a bullet unknowingly lodged in the barrel of a revolver.

Gutierrez’s lawyers will present her as the scapegoat for a chaotic, low-budget production where Baldwin and first assistant director Dave Halls did not follow firearm safety procedures, producers refused Gutierrez’s requests for extra firearms training, and camera crew members walked off set hours before Hutchins died, complaining of hazardous conditions.

The armorer said she asked for additional instruction for Baldwin because he had dangerous firearms habits, despite being the son of a school rifle team coach.

“He had some poor form,” Gutierrez said during a Dec.7, 2022, interview with New Mexico state worker safety investigators, saying that Baldwin would pull a revolver’s trigger to release the hammer after a film sequence, rather than lower it with his thumb, an action that could accidentally fire a round.

Gutierrez alleged that prop supplier Seth Kenney, a former family friend she sued over the shooting, provided “Rust” with live rounds mixed among dummies.

That lawsuit was withdrawn after Kenney said Gutierrez bought the live rounds before the production, and he obtained thousands of her texts as evidence.

Special prosecutors will present the texts during her trial.

Stephen Aarons, a Santa Fe criminal defense lawyer, said Baldwin will be watching the Gutierrez trial closely.

“Alex will adopt some of the prosecution’s case against Hannah and say, ‘Look at all this, I knew nothing of this,'” Aarons said.

Armorers are responsible for ensuring on-set gun safety, not actors.

“There could be an inconsistency in finding that, or alleging that two people are both responsible for the same event if it’s the armorer who’s wholly responsible for determining safety,” said Kate Mangels, a partner at entertainment law firm Kinsella Holley Iser Kump Steinsapir.

— Reporting by Andrew Hay; additional reporting by Nathan Frandino; editing by Donna Bryson, Leslie Adler and Aurora Ellis