In case you’re still wondering who’s guilty for shooting dead the cinematographer Halyna Hutchings at the set of the “Rust” movie, it’s not Alec Baldwin, according to his lawyer, Luke Nikas.
In his recently filed arbitration papers, Nikas is arguing that Baldwin is not financially responsible for Hutchins’ wrongful death. Not only that, but he has zero responsibility for the shooting. That’s not surprising, this is what lawyers do – we argue that our clients are innocent (or not that guilty). The only trick is to get the courts to agree.
But, you may ask, didn’t Baldwin pull the trigger? Yes, he did, but that doesn’t make him responsible, Nikas says. In fact, his paper goes on to suggest that pretty much everyone is responsible, even Hutchings herself. That’s because she “directed Baldwin” to “determine how best to angle the camera and what movements Baldwin should make for her to capture the cocked gun that the script had called for,” according to Nikas. In particular, “Hutchins described what she would like Baldwin to do with the placement of the gun … She directed Baldwin to hold the gun higher, to a point where it was directed toward her.”
Someone obviously forgot to tell Hutchins that the gun was loaded with live rounds and that if Baldwin did shoot her, she would likely suffer death or serious injury. Well, unfortunately, the gun was loaded with at least one live round, and Baldwin did pull the trigger, killing Hutchings.
According to Nikas, “…the system broke down, and someone should be held legally culpable for the tragic consequences. That is correct. It’s just not Baldwin, who was “just an actor.”
This brings to mind Lazar Kaganovich, the transportation chief in Joseph Stalin’s government. Kaganovich was responsible for transportation safety and he’s rumored to have coined the famous words, “every accident has someone’s name attached to it.” Although Kaganovich is not a US legal authority, his words have deep roots in our legal system. So, whose name is attached to Hutchins’ death if not Baldwin’s, and what’s the likelihood that the jury (or the arbitrators) would agree to it?
Without the boring details, the essence of Baldwin’s argument is that he and the other producers hired professionals who were supposed to take care of everything gun-related, from procuring the gun and ammunition to make sure the gun was safe to fire. It was their job to do and they failed. Baldwin just followed directions.
According to Nikas, Baldwin believed that the gun was ‘cold’, meaning that it was not loaded with live ammunition. Why did he believe it? Because he was told so by someone else whose job it was to make sure it was cold. He didn’t check the gun himself.
In fact, according to the filing, “He didn’t announce that the gun was ‘cold’ when it really contained a live round; he didn’t load the gun; he didn’t check the bullets in the gun; he didn’t purchase the bullets; he didn’t make the bullets and represent that they were dummies; he wasn’t in charge of firearm safety on the set; he didn’t hire the people who supplied the bullets or checked the gun, and he played no role in managing the movie’s props.”
No, he didn’t do any of those things, except point the gun at Hutchings and shoot her.
The filing states that Hutchins instructed Baldwin to pull back the hammer, which he did, “but not far enough to actually cock the gun, ” When Baldwin let go of the hammer, the gun went off. ”
So, whether the gun went off because Baldwin let go of the hummer, or actually pulled the trigger, the loaded gun in Baldwin’s hand was pointed at Hutchings and Baldwin caused it to go off. Everybody agrees to this part. The only question is: was it Baldwin’s fault?
Nikas is claiming that Baldwin “affirmatively requested gun training by the crew member responsible for firearms on the Rust set long before filming began” and that “even after 42 years in the film business, Alec Baldwin takes safety seriously and wanted to ensure he received the safety training that was available on the Rust set.”
The filing is further saying that the rookie armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed did not instruct him to double-check the gun and that she said: “it was her job to check the gun — not his.”
I can imagine the scene. Gutierrez-Reed handles a .45 caliber revolver to Baldwin who is required by the script to point it at someone. Of course, Baldwin, being a responsible individual who, “even after 42 years in the movie business”, received gun safety instructions, wants to check the gun before pointing it at another person. However, he doesn’t check the gun because Gutierrez-Reed doesn’t tell him to. Actually, it sounds like she tells him not to because it’s her job, not his. So he doesn’t.
“An actor cannot rule that a gun is safe,” Baldwin’s filing claims. “That is the responsibility of other people on the set.” Nope, he can’t rule that. It’s so complicated that it requires a specially trained professional. In case you don’t know, with a revolver, all it takes is to open the cylinder and examine the rounds. For those who are really not gun savvy, blank rounds don’t have bullets.
So, these are the facts. Because gun safety training will come up in this litigation more than a few times, it will determine the outcome of this case – and Baldwin’s criminal and civil liability. There are the four universally accepted gun safety rules, which are the basis of any firearms training in any US jurisdiction. If Baldwin was ever instructed in gun safety, he must have known them. Here there are:
Treat all guns as if they are loaded. Always assume that a gun is loaded even if you think it is unloaded.
Keep the gun pointed in the safest possible direction. Always be aware of where a gun is pointing. A “safe direction” is one where an accidental discharge of the gun will not cause injury or damage. Only point a gun at an object you intend to shoot. Never point a gun toward yourself or another person.
Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
Know your target, its surroundings, and beyond.
If Baldwin received any firearms training, he simply should not have pointed the gun at Hutchins, and of course, he should have not caused the gun to fire – without making sure the gun was safe. It’s really that simple.
If I had to bet money on the outcome of this case, I would bet several years of litigation that will end in an agreement in which Baldwin will settle with Hutching’s family and many others who have filed suits against him.
It’s more interesting to see whether criminal charges will ever be filed in connection with this case. At this point, it seems unlikely although time will tell.
Norman Spencer is a federal criminal defense lawyer based in New York City.