Is the police investigation into Alec Baldwin's 'Rust' shooting almost over? Case explained

·8 min read

Nearly a year ago, Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of his movie "Rust." Why is it taking so long for authorities to determine what happened and whether anyone is criminally responsible?

Authorities have revealed little, but did release two investigative reports, including the FBI's analysis of the prop gun that killed Hutchins and the medical examiner's report, which deemed her death an accident.

Among the FBI's conclusions: The gun could not have been fired "without a pull of the trigger," which contradicts Baldwin's account of how he handled the weapon.

But even if he did pull the trigger, how did a live bullet get into the gun?

Here's what's known about the investigation:

Alec Baldwin settles lawsuit with Halyna Hutchins' family: 'Rust' to resume filming in January

FBI analysis: Gun used by Alec Baldwin on 'Rust' set couldn't have fired without 'pull of the trigger'

"Rust" star and producer Alec Baldwin was holding the prop gun when it went off, fatally wounding Halyna Hutchins.
"Rust" star and producer Alec Baldwin was holding the prop gun when it went off, fatally wounding Halyna Hutchins.

What happened the day Halyna Hutchins died?

On Oct. 21, 2021, at the Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, the cast and crew of "Rust" were rehearsing. At Hutchins' direction, Baldwin, 64, the film's star and producer, drew a prop gun and pointed it toward her and the camera.

The gun went off, firing a live bullet, for reasons under dispute. Baldwin told ABC News he cocked the gun but didn't pull the trigger.

Both Hutchins and director Joel Souza, who was standing behind her, were struck. Hutchins, 42, was transported by helicopter to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where she died.

An aerial view of the Bonanza Creek Ranch film set in Santa Fe, two days after the "Rust" shooting.
An aerial view of the Bonanza Creek Ranch film set in Santa Fe, two days after the "Rust" shooting.

How could a prop gun kill anyone?

It can if there are live rounds in it, and there was at least one live bullet in the replica Colt .45 gun Baldwin held, according to investigators.

In an interview with ABC last November, Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies acknowledged that more live rounds were found on the set after the shooting but didn’t say how many. She said it was “concerning” that live rounds were found at all.

“We still don’t know how they got on the set. And how they got there, I think, will be one of the most important factors going into a charging decision,” Carmack-Altwies said.

Who are the alleged targets of the 'Rust' shooting investigation?

Baldwin is the most famous name in the case. He was holding the gun when it went off, although he says he was told it was a "cold gun," meaning it contained no live rounds.

Aside from Baldwin, "Rust" assistant director Dave Halls, set armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed and guns-and-ammo supplier Seth Kenney have all been mentioned as possibly playing roles in the tragedy. All have lawyers.

Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies addresses the media on Oct. 27, days after the "Rust" shooting.
Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies addresses the media on Oct. 27, days after the "Rust" shooting.

And all of them, including Baldwin, deny responsibility.

"I feel someone is responsible for what happened, but I know it isn't me," Baldwin told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

Could the gun held by Alec Baldwin have fired without pulling the trigger?

Guns can be unintentionally discharged because of mechanical malfunction or insufficient firearm training and handling, but is that what happened?

This is a key investigative question. Some gun experts say guns can't fire on their own, and the FBI seemed to back them up.

The FBI analysis says three accidental-discharge tests were performed to determine if the gun could have fired without a trigger being pulled. Each test concluded the gun would not have fired "without a pull of the trigger."

But the report also says the gun was in poor condition and its internal components were not intact or functional during the testing.

"When an accidental discharge examination is performed, it may not be possible to recreate or duplicate all of the circumstances which led to the discharge of a firearm without a pull of the trigger," the report said.

In December, Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza told Fox News, "Guns don't just go off. So whatever needs to happen to manipulate the firearm, he did that and it was in his hands."

In February, Carmack-Altwies told Vanity Fair that her investigative team found it is possible for a gun to fire without pulling the trigger. “You can pull the hammer back without actually pulling the trigger and without actually locking it. Then if you let it go, the firing pin can hit the primer of the bullet,” she said.

Baldwin's attorney, Luke Nikas, says the FBI report is being "misconstrued."

"The gun fired in testing only one time – without having to pull the trigger – when the hammer was pulled back and the gun broke in two different places," Nikas' statement says. "The FBI was unable to fire the gun in any prior test, even when pulling the trigger, because it was in such poor condition.”

Alec Baldwin gives first interview since fatal 'Rust' shooting: 'I didn't pull the trigger'

Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set while filming the Western "Rust" in Santa Fe.
Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set while filming the Western "Rust" in Santa Fe.

What are the potential criminal charges?

No one expects murder charges against anyone; lesser charges are possible but not guaranteed.

To sustain a murder charge, prosecutors would have to prove that someone acted knowingly or deliberately, and there's no evidence so far that anyone intended for the shooting to happen.

Another possibility is involuntary manslaughter, which under New Mexico law means a killing under certain circumstances, including "while acting in a reckless manner which may cause the death of another person."

For instance, was the gun properly checked before it was handed to Baldwin and if so, who was responsible?

Laws aimed at punishing negligence, criminal or civil, also might come into play.

Criminal negligence generally means a person ignored a known or obvious risk or disregarded the life and safety of others, resulting in a killing – such as a parent leaving a loaded firearm within reach of a small child.

What are the consequences of the 'Rust' tragedy so far?

A scathing report by the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau blasted "Rust" producers for "plain indifference" and noted they "willfully violated" known industry safety protocols.

The safety failures cited included testimony that limited or no action was taken to address two misfires prior to the fatal shooting. The bureau also documented gun safety complaints from crew members that went unheeded and said weapons specialists were not allowed to make decisions about additional safety training.

The bureau imposed the maximum fine under state law, just short of $137,000. Rust Movie Productions is disputing the fine, and an eight-day hearing has been scheduled starting April 12.

What about civil lawsuits in the case?

Police and prosecutors play no role in cases filed in civil courts.

In these cases, plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages and must prove that a defendant has failed to exercise ordinary care, or “due diligence," based on a standard of what "a person of ordinary prudence" would do under the same or similar circumstances. If there's no agreement among parties on whether the standard was violated, the case would go before a civil jury trial.

So far, the most prominent lawsuit has been the wrongful death claim filed by Hutchins' widower and son. 

On Oct. 5, lawyers for Baldwin, the "Rust" production company and Matthew Hutchins announced they had settled the suit. The terms were not disclosed but the movie will resume production in January and Matthew Hutchins will serve as an executive producer. It was not immediately clear whether “Rust” filming can resume before workplace sanctions are resolved.

"I have no interest in engaging in recriminations or attribution of blame (to the producers or Mr. Baldwin). All of us believe Halyna's death was a terrible accident. I am grateful that the producers and the entertainment community have come together to pay tribute to Halyna's final work," Hutchins said in a statement  provided by his lawyer Brian Panish.

Baldwin's attorney, Luke Nikas, also issued a statement saying the settlement negotiations were aimed at doing "what is best for Halyna’s son. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to the resolution of this tragic and painful situation.”

The statement from Rust Movie Productions, through its attorney, Melina Spadone, said the settlement is subject to court approval and "marks an important step forward in celebrating Halyna's life and honoring her work."

Matthew Hutchins' lawsuit, filed soon after his wife's death, stated that Baldwin "recklessly shot and killed Halyna Hutchins on the set," and the defendants "failed to perform industry standard safety checks and follow basic gun safety rules while using real guns ... with fatal consequences."

Under New Mexico law, a wrongful death is one "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another" that, if the person had lived, would have allowed him or her to file a personal injury lawsuit.

"Wrongful acts" include negligence (such as careless driving), intentional assault and/or battery, or a death in the course of another crime such as vehicular manslaughter or murder.

After the Hutchins settlement was announced, a spokesperson for the district attorney's office in Santa Fe said it will have no impact on the ongoing criminal investigation or the decision on whether to file charges in the case.

"While civil suits are settled privately and often involve financial awards, criminal cases deal only in facts," spokesperson Heather Brewer said in a statement to USA TODAY. "If the facts and evidence warrant criminal charges under New Mexico law then charges will be brought.

"No one is above the law."

Contributing: Brian Truitt

'Rust' tragedy: All eyes are on the gun that killed Halyna Hutchins

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alec Baldwin 'Rust' shooting case is ongoing. Here's what we know.