Negligence or scapegoating? Trial of ‘Rust’ armorer begins in fatal shooting by Alec Baldwin

Baldwin, who was pointing the gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins when it went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza, is separately fighting a charge of involuntary manslaughter

Updated - February 23, 2024 01:27 pm IST

Published - February 23, 2024 12:44 pm IST

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, center, sits with her attorney Jason Bowles, left, during the first day of testimony in the trial against her in First District Court, in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Gutierrez-Reed, who was working as the armorer on the movie “Rust,” when a revolver actor Alec Baldwin was holding fired and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded the film’s director, Joel Souza, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence.

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, center, sits with her attorney Jason Bowles, left, during the first day of testimony in the trial against her in First District Court, in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Gutierrez-Reed, who was working as the armorer on the movie “Rust,” when a revolver actor Alec Baldwin was holding fired and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded the film’s director, Joel Souza, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence. | Photo Credit: Eddie Moore

Prosecutors sought to pin the blame on a movie weapons supervisor for bringing live ammunition on set and “unprofessional and sloppy” work that contributed to the fatal shooting of a cinematographer by Alec Baldwin during the production of the film Rust, as the first trial in the death began Thursday.

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who was the armorer for the Western movie, has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on Oct. 21, 2021, during rehearsal on a movie ranch outside Santa Fe.

Baldwin, who was pointing the gun at Hutchins when it went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza, is separately fighting a charge of involuntary manslaughter. No trial date has been set.

Defense attorneys say Gutierrez-Reed is not to blame and is being smeared and unfairly scapegoated. Jason Bowles told jurors that his client had to perform two jobs on Rust while being rushed — and that her requests for more resources went unanswered by her manager.

Jurors watched police body camera videos of the harrowing, chaotic scene after the shooting, with medical personnel treating a wounded and semiconscious Hutchins and loading her into an ambulance as a helicopter arrived. A sheriff's deputy and lieutenant narrated their efforts to corral witnesses, secure ammunition and cordon off the scene on the sprawling movie ranch.

Prosecutors said they plan to present evidence that Gutierrez-Reed unwittingly brought live ammunition onto the set, where it was expressly prohibited, and to show “how these live rounds slowly spread their way throughout the set, eventually landing in several of the actors' costumes.”

They say the armorer missed multiple opportunities to ensure safety, eventually loading a live round into the gun that killed Hutchins and failing twice to properly check whether bullets in the gun were live or dummies.

The revolver that actor Alec Baldwin was holding and fired, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding the film’s director, Joel Souza, is displayed during the trial against Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

The revolver that actor Alec Baldwin was holding and fired, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding the film’s director, Joel Souza, is displayed during the trial against Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. | Photo Credit: Eddie Moore

“We will show you, ladies and gentlemen, that by failing to make those vital safety checks, the defendant acted negligently and without due caution,” prosecutor Jason Lewis told jurors. “And the decisions that she made that day ultimately contributed to Ms. Hutchins’ death.”

Lead defense counsel Jason Bowles countered by pointing to findings by workplace safety regulators of broad problems that extended beyond the armorer’s control. He contended that live rounds arrived on set from an Albuquerque-based supplier of dummy rounds, and that the supplier was never truly investigated.

Gutierrez-Reed, the stepdaughter of renowned sharpshooter and weapons consultant Thell Reed, was 24 when the shooting occurred.

“What they’ve tried to do, and what you’re seeing in this courtroom today, is trying to blame it all on Hannah, a 24-year-old. Why? Because she’s an easy target, she’s the least powerful person on that set," Bowles said.

A photo of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins is displayed during the trial against Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, in First District Court, in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, February 22, 2024. Gutierrez-Reed, who was working as the armorer on the movie “Rust” when a revolver that actor Alec Baldwin was holding fired killing Hutchins and wounded the film’s director Joel Souza, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence.

A photo of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins is displayed during the trial against Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, in First District Court, in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, February 22, 2024. Gutierrez-Reed, who was working as the armorer on the movie “Rust” when a revolver that actor Alec Baldwin was holding fired killing Hutchins and wounded the film’s director Joel Souza, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence. | Photo Credit: Eddie Moore

Bowles sought to shift blame for safety failures away from Gutierrez-Reed, and toward Baldwin and his handling of the gun during rehearsal.

“He either had his finger on the trigger and the hammer cocked, or he pulled the trigger, as he was pointing that at Ms. Hutchins and Mr. Souza,” Bowles said. “You’re not going to hear anything about her being in that church or firing that weapon. That was Alec Baldwin.”

Baldwin has said he pulled back the gun’s hammer — not the trigger — and the weapon fired.

Prosecutors initially dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against him in April, saying they were informed the gun might have been modified before the shooting and malfunctioned. But a more recent analysis concluded the “trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver,” and he was re-indicted in January by a grand jury.

Bowles also said the trial will show that Baldwin did not follow a safety recommendation from Gutierrez-Reed and flouted basic principles of gun safety by pulling out the revolver in a “cross-draw” motion without specific training.

“You’re going to hear that Ms. Gutierrez-Reed specifically requested to train Mr. Baldwin in a cross-draw," Bowles told jurors. “You’re also going to hear that he did not do that training.”

Prosecutors questioned the sheriff’s deputy and lieutenant about their efforts to secure the scene and preserve evidence, and noted the moment when Gutierrez-Reed handed over the revolver, now emptied of cartridges.

In cross-examinations, defense counsel asked whether officers lost sight of a storage cart for ammunition and weapons amid the turmoil and highlighted that witnesses were kept together in a way that conversations might erode reliable testimony.

The trial is scheduled to run through March 6, with more than 40 potential witnesses.

Baldwin, the lead actor and a co-producer on Rust, doesn’t appear on pretrial witness lists and could invoke protections against self-incrimination if pressed.

Gutierrez-Reed faces up to 18 months and a $5,000 fine if convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The evidence tampering charge stems from accusations that she handed a small bag of possible narcotics to another crew member after the shooting to avoid detection.

Her attorneys say that charge is an attempt to smear her character. The bag was thrown away without testing the contents, defense attorneys said.

In a separate case, Gutierrez-Reed is accused of carrying a gun into a bar in downtown Santa Fe. Her attorneys say that charge was used to try to pressure her into a false confession in the Rust case.

Gutierrez-Reed was responsible for storage, maintenance and handling of firearms and ammunition, and for training cast members who would be handling firearms, according to state workplace safety regulators.

Dummy rounds are typically distinguished from live bullets by a small hole in their brass cartridge, which indicates there is no explosive material inside, or by shaking the round to hear the clatter of a BB that is inserted inside.

Rust Movie Productions paid a $100,000 fine to the state following a scathing report of safety failures in violation of standard industry protocols.

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