'Rust' armorer's trial begins. The outcome is 'very important' to Alec Baldwin's case, expert says

More than two years after cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the set of
Hannah Gutierrez-Reed is set to go on trial for involuntary manslaughter in New Mexico. (Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office)

The first criminal trial stemming from the death of Rust cinematographer Halyna Hutchins begins this week in Santa Fe County, N.M. Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the film’s armorer, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence. The trial is being looked at as a preview of what’s to come in Alec Baldwin’s legal case when the actor, who was recently recharged, goes to trial later this year.

Trial lawyer Ted Spaulding, founder of Atlanta's Spaulding Injury Law, tells Yahoo Entertainment that Gutierrez-Reed’s trial “is somewhat of a test case for the prosecution to see what a jury does with the facts. If Gutierrez-Reed is convicted, prosecutors may feel emboldened that they will get a conviction in Baldwin's case.”

"I guarantee that Alec Baldwin and his legal team will be intently and obsessively watching,” Miguel Custodio, a trial lawyer and co-founder of Custodio & Dubey LLP in Los Angeles, says.

Gutierrez-Reed faces a jury

On Wednesday, jury selection begins in Gutierrez-Reed’s trial. Special prosecutors allege that the 27-year-old movie armorer, who’s responsible for the safe use of firearms on the set, did not follow proper protocol or administer appropriate safety checks on the Colt .45 revolver prior to it being given to Baldwin, who was holding the vintage firearm during rehearsal on the western-movie set on Oct. 21, 2021 when it went off, fatally shooting Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza.

Investigators determined the round was live ammunition, not a dummy or a blank, and never should have been on set. Prosecutors said they will present “substantial evidence” that Gutierrez-Reed brought live rounds onto the set (six were found in total), including photographic evidence. They claim she was hungover when she mistakenly loaded the live round into the gun.

Gutierrez-Reed was not present when the shooting took place, having handed off the gun to first assistant director David Halls, who in turn gave it to Baldwin, telling the star it was a “cold gun” — or did not contain ammunition.

Halyna Hutchins.
Halyna Hutchins, pictured in 2019, served as director of photography on the film Rust. (Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie) (Fred Hayes via Getty Images)

Gutierrez-Reed maintains she “has no idea where the live rounds came from” and was given more than one job on the low-budget film, including assistant prop master. Her attorneys have tried to get the case tossed out, citing insufficient evidence. They have also claimed to have “plenty of evidence” someone else brought the live rounds to set. Gutierrez-Reed was subsequently charged with tampering with evidence, after allegedly handing off a small amount of cocaine following her interview with police. Her attorney has called that charge "retaliatory and vindictive."

While Baldwin is not currently on the witness list for Gutierrez-Reed’s trial, which is expected to last two weeks, Halls, who pleaded guilty to the charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon in exchange for probation, is. So are Souza, Sarah Zachary (the prop master and Gutierrez-Reed’s boss) and Seth Kenney (who provided the guns and dummy ammunition to the production).

If convicted, Gutierrez-Reed could face up to one-and-a-half years in jail.

Implications for Baldwin’s case

Baldwin, 65, is expected to tread a similar path in the near future. The film’s star and producer saw involuntary manslaughter charges against him dropped last year, but he was recharged last month after new gun testing concluded it couldn’t have fired without a pull of the trigger.

Alec Baldwin, who was holding the gun, also faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter. His trial is expected to take place this summer.
Alec Baldwin, who was holding the gun, also faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter. (Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office)

Baldwin — who also maintains his innocence — can be tried on one of two counts: involuntary manslaughter (negligent use of a firearm) or the alternative of involuntary manslaughter (without due caution or circumspection). Prosecutors allege that he recklessly handled the weapon, disregarding the safety of others. Also, they say he did not complete the required firearms training sessions and was on the phone during the training he did attend.

Baldwin has maintained that the antique gun discharged in his hand, he didn’t pull the trigger, and he was told it was safe to rehearse with.

Baldwin’s trial date had been set for August but is being rescheduled. Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer, who is presiding over both cases, said this week it could be moved up to June or July.

Whenever it is, Baldwin — who also faces up to 18 months in prison if convicted — has the advantage of seeing the case against Gutierrez-Reed, including all the evidence: videos, photographs, text messages, documents and witness testimony.

Custodio, who said Baldwin’s legal team will be intently watching this trial, thinks Gutierrez-Reed’s legal team “will try their very best to throw Baldwin under the bus by showing the production was chaotic and that safety guidelines were not made a priority by Baldwin,” who was a producer. “This trial will be very important with regards to public opinion and may sway potential jurors in the Baldwin case, depending on what is uncovered in this trial.”

He adds that Baldwin’s team will also get a preview of “witnesses who will either help or doom” his case. One of them is Halls, who was the person who gave Baldwin the gun immediately before Baldwin shot it. “Halls reached a deal with the expectation that he would cooperate in the prosecution’s case, and it remains to be seen whether he will be a reliable witness in this trial," Custodio says.

Spaulding, who called Gutierrez-Reed’s trial a “test case” for Baldwin’s, says “Baldwin's case is by far the most significant one for the Santa Fe District Attorney's Office because he is the big name, and the public will judge the success or failure of the way authorities handled this incident based on the outcome for the man who actually held the gun.”

Thus far, “prosecutors have made several embarrassing mistakes, and they had to dismiss the original manslaughter charge against Baldwin,” Spaulding continued. “They need a win, both to boost their confidence in the case against Baldwin and to show that they can be aggressive in seeking a trial for him. If Gutierrez-Reed is acquitted, prosecutors may feel the need to ask Baldwin to accept a plea deal."