The collapse of the involuntary manslaughter charges against actor Alec Baldwin calls attention to the last defendant standing on his docket: “Rust” armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed.
On Thursday, Baldwin’s legal team revealed that prosecutors dropped their case against him related to the tragic and fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Prosecutors remained silent on that decision for hours, before releasing a statement indicating that they had learned of “new facts” that required “further investigation and forensic analysis” before proceeding with a case against the actor. The dismissal of the charges became official Friday afternoon.
“Consequently, we cannot proceed under the current time constraints and on the facts and evidence turned over by law enforcement in its existing form,” special prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis wrote in a statement. “We therefore will be dismissing the involuntary manslaughter charges against Mr. Baldwin to conduct further investigation. This decision does not absolve Mr. Baldwin of criminal culpability and charges may be refiled. Our follow-up investigation will remain active and ongoing.”
For former federal prosecutor Mitchell Epner, that statement “hides the ball” — and raises more questions than it answers.
“What were the new facts that came to light?” asked Epner, a partner at Rottenberg Lipman Rich PC. “What previously asserted facts are they no longer asserting?”
Epner argued that prosecutorial ethics demands timely answers.
“The job of a prosecutor is to do justice, not merely seek convictions,” he said. “Justice here requires disclosure.”
Baldwin’s prosecution has consisted of a series of embarrassments for New Mexico prosecutors. Two sets of prosecutors resigned from the case after pretrial defeats and setbacks. The actor’s legal team successfully challenged the constitutionality of a firearm enhancement that carried a possible five-year sentence, successfully arguing that the statute was amended after the “Rust” shooting happened. Former special prosecutor Andrea Reeb stepped down after Baldwin sought to disqualify her on the grounds that she’s a GOP state lawmaker, and New Mexico’s constitution forbids her from assuming those two roles.
Though the initial prosecutors are now removed from the case, some experts believe their replacements have already exercised “poor judgment” in saying charges may be refiled.
“Mr. Baldwin is presumed innocent and he has no criminal culpability until and unless he is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told Law&Crime. “It is also unusual for a prosecutor to publicly discuss refiling charges. If the prosecutor believed she had enough evidence to convict Mr. Baldwin, presumably she would not have dismissed the charges. It is speculative to publicly discuss this possibility when she presumably does not have the evidence she needs to convict.”
Mariotti said he isn’t surprised that the case remains pending against the armorer.
“Reed has more direct responsibility and I believe she also made some statements of regret,” Mariotti noted, adding that a jury could have concluded that Baldwin relied upon her expertise.
The statement issued by Reed’s attorneys Jason Bowles and Todd Bullion tacitly acknowledged that the case against their client remained pending, but they predicted an ultimate victory.
“The new special prosecutor team has taken a very diligent and thorough approach to the entire investigation, which we welcome and have always welcomed,” they wrote in a statement after news broke that Baldwin’s charge would be dismissed. “They are seeking the truth and we are also. The truth about what happened will come out and the questions that we have long sought answers for will be answered. We fully expect at the end of this process that Hannah will also be exonerated.”
For Epner, the prosecution’s silence makes it difficult to assess the strength of their case against Reed.
“It may be that the changes to the gun and trigger are exculpatory for Baldwin but inculpatory (or neutral) for Reed,” he said. “It is also possible that charges against Reed will be dropped after further scrutiny by the new prosecutors.”
At a hearing on Friday afternoon, prosecutors provided little clarity on what caused the shake-up to the docket, and Judge Mary Marlowe Summer did not press them on the topic. Proceedings revolved mostly on scheduling matters. Morrissey, one of the special prosecutors, said she wanted to postpone the preliminary hearing originally schedule for May to continue her investigation.
“Completing this investigation is going to require the issuance of subpoenas,” she said.
Under New Mexico law, a criminal defendant has a right to a preliminary hearing within 120 days of being charged, but Reed’s attorneys agreed to waive that restriction. The parties agreed to hold those proceedings between Aug. 9 and 16, 2023, paving the way for a possible trial against Reed later that month.
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