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What does the 'Rust' armorer's criminal conviction mean for Alec Baldwin's case?

FILE - In this image from video released by the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office, Alec Baldwin speaks with investigators following a fatal shooting on a movie set in Santa Fe, N.M. A judge is scheduled to resolve a weapons-related charge against a codefendant in the case against Alec Baldwin in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer during a 2021 movie rehearsal. Prosecutors have proposed plea agreement with safety coordinator and assistant director David Halls regarding his involvement in the western movie "Rust" and the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. (Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)
Alec Baldwin speaks to Santa Fe County Sheriff's investigators after the fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins on the "Rust" movie set. ( Associated Press)

After winning a conviction in the "Rust" movie armorer's trial, New Mexico prosecutors now will turn their focus to actor Alec Baldwin, hoping to prove he is criminally liable for the accidental death of the film's cinematographer in October 2021.

In fact, Special Prosecutor Kari T. Morrissey didn't wait for the 12-person jury in Santa Fe, N.M., to find weapons handler Hannah Gutierrez guilty of involuntary manslaughter before introducing evidence that could be damaging to Baldwin.

During closing arguments Wednesday, Morrissey ripped into Baldwin and his gun use on the "Rust" set, particularly when he pointed his prop gun toward director of photography Halyna Hutchins, who was standing mere feet away, while he rehearsed a scene in a rustic church. Hutchins was shot, and died that afternoon.

"Alec Baldwin's conduct and his lack of gun safety inside that church on that day is something that he's going to have to answer for," Morrissey vowed to the jury in Gutierrez's case.

But legal experts gave mixed opinions over whether Gutierrez's conviction will boost prosecutors' chances of winning a guilty verdict against Baldwin in the "Rust" shooting. The actor-producer was charged in January with involuntary manslaughter in Hutchins' death, hours after she was shot on the remote movie location just south of Santa Fe. If convicted, he faces up to 18 months in prison.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty; his trial is set for July. His attorneys, through a spokesperson, declined to comment Thursday.

Read more: Full coverage: The fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins on the ‘Rust’ set

Legal experts said they've been impressed by the skill and swagger of New Mexico prosecutors, two experienced attorneys from Albuquerque who inherited the case nearly a year ago. A previous set of prosecutors, including the Santa Fe County district attorney, was forced to step down last year from the Gutierrez and Baldwin cases after a series of missteps.

Morrissey, in particular, has shown a willingness to take on Baldwin's prosecution. She and her legal partner, Jason J. Lewis, successfully outmaneuvered Gutierrez's defense attorneys, who tried to shift the blame for the tragedy to the film's production managers and producers, including Baldwin.

On Wednesday, the 12-person jury deliberated only about two hours before returning the guilty verdict against Gutierrez.

"Baldwin's legal team must view this result with trepidation," former federal prosecutor John Fishwick said Thursday. "This conviction is big momentum for the prosecution."

Read more: 'Rust' shooting: Hannah Gutierrez found guilty of involuntary manslaughter

However, other veteran lawyers pointed to several complications in the case that could make a Baldwin conviction harder to obtain. For example, Baldwin was handed the prop gun that day and told that it was "cold," meaning there was no ammunition inside. In reality, the chamber of the revolver contained six rounds — five so-called dummy bullets and an actual lead bullet that killed Hutchins.

Baldwin has argued, with support from Hollywood's performers' union SAG-AFTRA, that it wasn't his job to be the gun safety officer on set. He said he was relying on other professionals to do their jobs to ensure a safe production. But that argument might not hold much weight in a court of law.

"His defense can't be, 'I'm only an actor,' a special argument that's unique to him," University of New Mexico law professor Joshua Kastenberg said. "The question then becomes, why are actors different than ordinary citizens? Well, they're not."

Baldwin's status as a world-famous movie star undoubtedly raises the stakes and scrutiny of his prosecution.

Read more: Alec Baldwin has long lived at the center of a storm. Now comes a hurricane

Los Angeles-based trial attorney Dave Ring said Baldwin's celebrity status could overtake the case.

"The prosecution is going to have a tough, uphill climb to convict Alec Baldwin in the next trial," Ring said. "It's one thing to convict a 26-year-old young lady who no one has ever heard of before, and one who has committed some very reckless acts. But it is quite another thing to convict one of the most popular celebrities in America."

Read more: FBI analyst describes damage to Alec Baldwin's 'Rust' gun in armorer criminal trial

At Baldwin's trial, the prosecutors will have to prove that the star acted recklessly. Baldwin's conduct on the "Rust" set loomed large during Gutierrez's 10-day trial.

Prosecutors played video clips from behind-the-scenes footage captured during the "Rust" filming. In one scene, Baldwin fired his long-barreled Colt .45 as he darted up a chaparral-covered hill. He fired toward the camera and someone yelled, "Cut." Baldwin then fired off another round.

Witnesses testified during Gutierrez's trial that the cross-draw maneuver that Baldwin was rehearsing while sitting in a pew in the wooden church — which is when the gun went off — was not in the script.

Gutierrez told sheriff's investigators that she wasn't in the church during the rehearsal because she was unaware that Baldwin would be manipulating the gun. Joel Souza, the director who was injured in the shooting, testified that the plan was for Baldwin to simply start the movement of slowly pulling his pistol from his leather shoulder holster — not for Baldwin to point it at the camera.

Read more: 'Rust' director Joel Souza describes being injured in Alec Baldwin shooting: 'Nothing made sense'

Another key issue will be whether Baldwin actually pulled the trigger; he has consistently maintained that he did not. Prosecutors must contend with questions about the state of his prop gun, which was damaged during testing at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va., in 2022 when it was struck by a rawhide mallet, according to testimony from FBI forensic examiner Bryce Ziegler.

Baldwin's attorneys have pointed to the gun's fracturing to suggest that the gun was defective when Baldwin was using it in the church.

"The gun itself is going to take center stage in Alec Baldwin's case," Ring said. "The defense is going to muddy the waters on whether that gun was somehow defective and maybe fired on its own or fired with a slight depress of the trigger."

During an ABC News special two months after the tragedy, Baldwin told anchor George Stephanopoulos: “The trigger wasn’t pulled. I didn’t pull the trigger. ... I would never point a gun at anyone and pull the trigger at them.”

But Morrissey, the prosecutor, appears to be skeptical of Baldwin's statements about the trigger and whether that absolves him of guilt.

"Did Mr. Baldwin also contribute [to Hutchins' death] when he pointed the gun at people and pulled the hammer back and — regardless of what he said to George Stephanopoulos — pulled the trigger?" Morrissey asked the jury. "Yes, he is."

A woman is escorted by law enforcement officers through a door
Hannah Gutierrez-Reed looks over at her mother as she is taken into custody after the guilty verdict in her trial at district court on March 6, 2024, in Santa Fe, N.M. (Luis Sánchez Saturno / Pool)

There will likely be another nuance, said UNM law professor Kastenberg. The prosecutors will have to convince the jury that two people — Baldwin and the already convicted Gutierrez — are responsible for the same crime.

"It makes it harder for the prosecution to deal with the 'shared guilt' aspect of this criminal negligence case," Kastenberg said, noting that since Gutierrez was already convicted of involuntary manslaughter, a felony, in Hutchins' death, jurors might conclude that she was most responsible.

Gutierrez’s conviction was the second for New Mexico prosecutors. "Rust" assistant director David Halls pleaded no contest to one count of negligent use of a deadly weapon for his role in Hutchins' death, a misdemeanor. Halls testified that he did not adequately check Baldwin’s gun.

Baldwin, Gutierrez and others have said that Halls handed Baldwin the loaded prop pistol that day. But during Gutierrez’s trial, Halls denied the accusation, saying it was Gutierrez who provided the revolver to the actor.

Read more: Alec Baldwin charged again with involuntary manslaughter in 'Rust' shooting

And there's the remaining possibility that Baldwin's case won't go to trial at all.

Baldwin's attorneys could strike a plea deal, saving him from enduring the embarrassment of a public airing of accusations and evidence.

"That would allow Baldwin to avoid a very high-profile, public messy trial," Ring said. "It would allow the prosecution to save face and get another criminal conviction on the case and avoid a case that they may not win at trial."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.