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‘Rust’ film armorer’s manslaughter trial opens with both sides debating whose negligence matters most

Originally Published: 22 FEB 24 05:52 ET

Updated: 22 FEB 24 16:30 ET

By Christina Maxouris and Eric Levenson, CNN

Editor's note: CNN’s Josh Campbell contributed to this report.

(CNN) — In opening statements of “Rust” film armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed’s manslaughter trial Thursday, both the prosecution and the defense agreed that negligence was to blame for the on-set shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.

But whose negligence, exactly?

New Mexico prosecutor Jason Lewis said Gutierrez Reed’s failures allowed six live bullets to make their way onto the set, and she did not make vital safety checks that would have caught the problem.

“The evidence you’re going to hear throughout this trial is that the defendant was unprofessional and that she failed to do the essential safety functions of her job, and that these failures resulted in live ammunition being spread throughout this entire set,” he said. “Once the live ammunition was on the set, she failed to detect it, because she didn’t follow those essential safety protocols that required her to inspect every round before they were placed into the gun.”

In contrast, defense attorney Jason Bowles placed blame on actor Alec Baldwin for failing to follow common-sense gun safety rules and on the film’s production team for creating a chaotic and unsafe environment. Gutierrez Reed, Bowles pointed out, was just 24 at the time and had to split her time as both armorer and props assistant.

“When the state talks about Ms. Gutierrez Reed being negligent, what really happened is production was negligent,” he said. “Production put her in that position. They put her in the position of having two jobs, props assistant and an armorer, and expected a 24-year-old under really tough conditions to keep up with everything that was going on.”

The case stems from the October 2021 death of Hutchins, who was struck by a live round of ammunition fired from a prop gun held by Baldwin, the TV and movie actor. Gutierrez Reed is the first person to stand trial in a case that has highlighted the movie industry’s safety standards – and this specific set’s violations of them.

She is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter “in the alternative” for the shooting, meaning jurors will not only have to decide whether she is guilty, but also under which legal definition of the state’s two types of involuntary manslaughter. She has pleaded not guilty.

She has also pleaded not guilty to tampering with evidence, as prosecutors allege she transferred a “small bag of cocaine” to someone else after a police interview on the day of the shooting.

Bowles has called the charge “character assassination,” telling CNN in June 2023 there was no “actual evidence of anything.”

If convicted, she faces up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine for each count. The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

Baldwin is also expected to stand trial on an involuntary manslaughter charge in connection with the killing. He has pleaded not guilty and has previously said he didn’t pull the trigger.

What led to the shooting

The fatal shooting took place on October 21, 2021, during a break in the filming of the Western movie “Rust” on the Bonanza Creek Ranch outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Baldwin had been practicing for a scene and was drawing and pointing a revolver with guidance from Hutchins and Joel Souza, the film’s director, according to a probable cause statement filed in January 2023.

Baldwin drew the revolver, pointed it at Hutchins and fired the weapon shortly before 2 p.m., striking her in the chest and injuring Souza, prosecutors said in the probable cause statement. Hutchins was pronounced dead just after 3:30 p.m.

The shocking death was the first of its kind since the 1993 death of actor Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, who was killed in the filming of “The Crow” when his co-star fired a prop gun containing a fragment of a bullet.

Hutchins’ death raised immediate questions as to how live ammunition made its way to the “Rust” set. Five live rounds and one spent live round were retrieved from the set by investigators, according to the probable cause statement.

Armorer believed she was using ‘dummy’ rounds

Bowles, Gutierrez Reed’s attorney, previously told NBC his client had loaded the gun with what she believed were dummy rounds, saying she retrieved them from a box labeled “dummy.” “Dummy” rounds refer to ammunition that contains no explosive elements but looks as if it was a real bullet when fired.

Prosecutors have alleged Gutierrez Reed repeatedly violated safety protocols and neglected her responsibilities leading up to the shooting, including failing to perform safety checks on the prop weapon and the ammunition she loaded it with, handing it to a staff member who should not have been handling weapons on set and then departing from the area when Baldwin ultimately fired the fatal round.

“The most egregious incident(s) of a reckless violation of safety and armorer duties is to allow live ammunition on or even near a film set where firearms are being used,” prosecutors said in the statement. “(Gutierrez) Reed should have caught this live ammunition on set but put everyone on the Rust set in danger by failing to do her job.”

In the probable cause statement, prosecutors alleged Gutierrez Reed loaded a prop firearm and stored the weapon during a lunch break in the set’s prop truck safe without first unloading it, as is proper safety protocol for dummy rounds.

Gutierrez Reed left a cart that contained ammunition unsecured and unsupervised during the break, and she did not perform a safety check after the break, according to the statement.

She handed the weapon to assistant film director David Halls, whose role on set is “prohibited and/or strictly discouraged from handling any of the firearms,” according to prosecutors. Gutierrez Reed then left the area, again violating safety protocol, prosecutors allege.

Defense attorneys have called the shooting a tragic accident and have accused the state of attempting to smear Gutierrez Reed’s reputation to try and bolster a politically-motivated prosecution.

Gutierrez Reed was not in the area during the shooting because the gathering was just supposed to be technical preparation, which would not require her presence, her attorneys have said.

Her defense says live rounds should never have been on the set and that she performed her safety duties. She sued the movie’s gun and ammunition supplier in January 2022, alleging they sold her a cache of dummy ammunition that had live rounds mixed in.

While prosecutors have alleged Gutierrez Reed did not take out each round and show it to Baldwin and Halls as per protocol, Bowles told NBC she spun the gun chamber for Halls and showed him “each and every round in that chamber.”

“There were six dummy rounds, she believed, to be in that handgun,” he told NBC.

Another cast member took a guilty plea

Halls, who received the firearm from Gutierrez Reed shortly before the shooting, yelled “cold gun” before Baldwin fired the weapon – a remark meant to indicate the firearm did not have any live rounds in it, according to an affidavit filed by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office and obtained by CNN affiliate KOAT. Halls did not know there were live rounds inside the gun, according to the affidavit.

Halls was previously the subject of safety complaints in other productions, CNN has reported.

He took a plea deal in 2023 for his role in the shooting, pleading no contest to one count of negligent use of a deadly weapon, according to the Los Angeles Times. He was sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation, a $500 fine, had to participate in a firearms safety class, complete 24 hours of community service and not use drugs or alcohol, according to the Times.

“Absent no charges at all, this is the best outcome for Mr. Halls and the case,” his attorney Lisa Torraco said. “He can now put this matter behind him and allow the focus of this tragedy to be on the shooting victims and changing the industry so this type of accident will never happen again.”

Report found ‘Rust’ set violated safety rules

A government report published roughly six months after the shooting painted a picture of a much larger problem, noting the “Rust” movie set “willfully violated” safety rules and “demonstrated plain indifference to employee safety.”

Gun safety procedures were not being followed on set, the report said, and the film’s management team knew it and failed to correct it.

Rust Movie Productions, LLC was fined nearly $137,000 – the maximum allowed by New Mexico law – and issued the highest-level citation for their actions.

“We are pleased to have entered into an agreement with (the Occupational Health & Safety Bureau), subject to approval, which downgrades the citation and reduces penalties,” Melina Spadone, an attorney for Rust Movie Productions, said. “Our top priority has always been resuming production and completing this film so we can honor the life and work of Halyna Hutchins. Settling this case rather than litigating is how we can best move forward to achieve that goal.”

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