The news that Halyna Hutchins’ husband has reached an agreement with actor Alec Baldwin and other producers over their shooting on the set of Rust has stunned many in Hollywood and beyond.
After all, Matthew Hutchins had furiously blamed Baldwin and others for negligence in his wife’s death, a tragedy that became a rallying cry for safer film sets nationwide. Now Hutchins has agreed to serve as executive producer on the film, which is set to resume production in January.
Speculation that the proposed settlement would affect the ongoing criminal investigation into the accident was quickly dispelled on Wednesday when ‘Dist. atty Mary Carmack-Altwies of New Mexico’s First Circuit vowed to proceed with the case, saying up to four people, including Baldwin, could be charged. “No one is above the law,” read a statement from her office.
Though the settlement could be marred by criminal charges that could be brought against Baldwin and other crew members, legal experts said it could certainly complicate the prosecutor’s case.
For example, it could become a problem for the prosecutor if she had planned to call Matthew Hutchins, who is typically referred to as a witness to the “spark of life,” to the witness stand to speak about the victim.
“If he says he believes it was an accident, that certainly doesn’t help your case when you’re trying to prosecute murder charges,” said trial attorney and former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani.
Another potential challenge for prosecutors: dropping the civil case will limit a source of possible evidence prosecutors could use.
“Information obtained from investigations, witnesses, testimonies, subpoenas, etc. can only do harm [Baldwin] in a criminal case, so I think dropping this civil case was an extremely smart move,” said Los Angeles personal injury attorney Miguel Custodio, co-founder of Custodio and Dubey LLP.
Nonetheless, Custodio and other legal experts said Wednesday’s proposed civil order, which has yet to be approved by a judge, will not derail a prosecution.
“In criminal cases, you have to understand that it’s not up to the victim to bring the case, it’s up to the state of New Mexico to bring the case,” said Maryam Ahranjani, a law professor at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.
“If they believe there is public value in bringing a criminal case, and if they can prove the essential elements of any charge beyond a reasonable doubt, they can still bring a case, regardless of what happened in the civil system.” added Ahranjani.
In New Mexico, which has seen a dramatic surge in Hollywood film production, prosecutors may also face local pressure to press charges, some observers said.
“The prosecutor must be independent and make the best decision for the people she represents — the people who elected her and those who live there who probably care deeply about this case,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor from the University of Richmond in Virginia. “Prosecutors may feel that there is a strong public interest in bringing a case and may be telling people that they need to be more responsible in this situation.”
While the settlement settles part of the civil litigation, other lawsuits remain pending in New Mexico and Los Angeles, as well as potential criminal charges.
Given the outcry from film crews after Hutchins’ death and the impact on the local film industry, prosecutors may want to use this case to comment on on-set safety.
“It really looks like the state of New Mexico, which has seen film productions increase in this state, I think really wants to send a strong signal not only to this current project and the producers, but also to future film production sets that do so.” intend filming in New Mexico that it’s okay to be a [low] Budget film and to cut a few corners, but safety isn’t a corner that should ever be trimmed,” Custodio said. “And I think they will most likely charge [Baldwin].”
However, an attorney for Baldwin has said prosecutors have not said whether they will press charges. And Baldwin has denied wrongdoing, saying he did not pull the gun’s trigger.
In a similar case involving 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was killed when she was hit by a train on a film set in Georgia, the family settled their lawsuit, but the director of the film Midnight Rider was convicted of the crime negligent homicide and was serving a prison sentence.
“When you have a case where there’s a civil settlement and the family tells the prosecutor they don’t want criminal charges and they feel like the civil process is going through, sometimes that affects the prosecutor’s office, sometimes not because it’s a completely independent decision,” said Harris Penn’s Jeff Harris, who represented the Jones family in their 2014 wrongful death lawsuit.
But in the end Tobias didn’t believe that the comparison would concern any criminal case.
“At least some jurors may be aware of the family’s settlement with Baldwin and the producers,” Tobias said. “But the civil settlement has no clear legal implications for potential charges.”
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office spent more than six months collecting evidence in the criminal case. FBI analysts tested the gun used by Baldwin and concluded that the trigger must have been pulled for the gun to fire. Now it’s up to Carmack-Altwies and the special investigator she uses to check whether there have been any criminal offences.
“The standard in civil cases is very different from that in criminal cases,” Ahranjani said. “It’s just not the same.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2022-10-05/what-does-the-rust-settlement-mean-for-any-criminal-case How the ‘Rust’ settlement could affect any criminal case. What to know