Rust trial prosecutors say Alec Baldwin violated ‘cardinal rules of firearm safety’

<span>Alec Baldwin arrives for his hearing in Santa Fe county district court with the attorney Luke Nikas, left, on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Ross D Franklin/AP</span>
Alec Baldwin arrives for his hearing in Santa Fe county district court with the attorney Luke Nikas, left, on Wednesday.Photograph: Ross D Franklin/AP

Almost three years after the fatal shooting on a New Mexico movie set, prosecutors began to lay out their case against Alec Baldwin in a packed Santa Fe courtroom, painting a picture of an unsafe workplace on a tight budget with a lead actor who violated the “cardinal rules of firearm safety”.

Proceedings in the actor’s involuntary manslaughter trial kicked off on Wednesday with the prosecution and defense offering their opening statements. The courtroom was filled to capacity with dozens of media as well as Baldwin’s wife and brother, who sat just behind the actor.

Related: Rust film set shooting: what you need to know about Alec Baldwin’s trial

The state said Baldwin had acted in a reckless manner that led to the death of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was shot on the film’s set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, a popular filming location about 30 minutes outside the city, in October 2021.

The actor and co-producer of the western film Rust was rehearsing when he pointed a prop firearm at Hutchins and the weapon fired a single bullet, killing Hutchins and injuring the director, Joel Souza.

The evidence will show the gun was functional, according to the prosecutor Erlinda Johnson, despite Baldwin’s statements that it had malfunctioned. She argued Baldwin had failed to do a safety check and repeatedly violated set safety rules with the weapon by leaving his finger on the hammer and trigger, and pointing it at people on set while filming.

“That gun the defendant had asked to be assigned worked perfectly fine, as it was designed,” Johnson said. “He pointed the gun at another human being, cocked the gun and pulled that trigger in reckless disregard for Ms Hutchins’ safety.”

The trial will focus extensively on the Colt .45 used in the shooting. Baldwin has long claimed that he did not fire the weapon. The prosecution contends that forensic testing on the gun shows the actor pulled the trigger and that he was negligent in his handling of it.

The defense argued in opening statements that Baldwin was focused on playing a character and was not responsible for checking the gun. Others on set were tasked with ensuring the weapon’s safety, the defense attorney Alex Spiro said, namely the film’s armorer and first assistant director.

The most critical issue in the case, he said, was how a real bullet got on the film set.

“The evidence will show that on a movie set, safety has to occur before the gun is placed in an actor’s hands,” Spiro said.

“He was just acting, as he has done for generations, and it was the safety apparatus that failed them all.”

As the trial got under way, the jury was shown footage of the chaotic aftermath of the shooting captured via a body camera worn by Nicholas Lefleur, a police officer who responded to the scene and the first witness to take the stand. The video shows medical first responders crowded around Souza and Hutchins on the floor of a movie set church.

Souza can be heard screaming in pain as medics attempt to treat him and Hutchins. The first responders advise Hutchins to take deep breaths and call her “good girl” as she lies with her arm over her head.

The bullet had entered underneath Hutchins’ right underarm and perforated her right lung before traveling through the spine and lacerating her spinal cord, prosecutor Johnson said in her opening statement.

Hutchins was a vibrant “rising star”, Johnson said. Gloria Allred, the attorney representing Hutchins’ parents and sister, was in attendance during proceedings on Wednesday and carried a photo of the 42-year-old.

Testimony from law enforcement later in the afternoon detailed more of authorities’ initial response to the incident as well their efforts to secure the scene and the weapon used in the shooting. The sheriff’s office had relatively few officers available, Lt Timoteo Benavidez testified, and a request for additional officers was denied.

Body camera footage displayed to the jury showed Benavidez taking the weapon from the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who appeared overwhelmed with emotion and struggled to communicate.

“Oh my God. Fuck. Are they OK?” she said, breathing heavily, and apologizing to Benavidez.

This criminal case against Baldwin has been winding its way through the New Mexico legal system since January 2024, when a grand jury indicted him on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors had charged him with the same offense in 2023 but later dropped the charge and said they needed more time to review the evidence.

Baldwin’s legal team had repeatedly attempted to get the charge against him dropped, and last month sought dismissal on grounds that prosecutors had allowed potentially “exculpatory evidence” to be destroyed in the FBI testing of the firearm before the defense could examine it. Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer denied those requests.

On Tuesday, proceedings moved forward as a jury of 11 women and five men were selected from a pool of 70 people. Only three of the potential jurors said they had not seen or heard anything about the case, but all of those selected said that they had not formed an opinion about the incident and that they felt they could be fair.

“Our job – the attorneys for both sides – is to make sure we get a fair and impartial jury,” the prosecutor Kari Morrissey said on Tuesday. “We want to get jurors who can be fair to the state. We also want to get jurors who can be fair to Mr Baldwin.”

The trial comes after Gutierrez-Reed, the chief weapons handler on the Rust set, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Legal experts have said that prosecutors may have a harder time proving Baldwin’s guilt after Gutierrez-Reed was deemed responsible in her trial.

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