Those lyrics from an old Cher song don’t convey the horror. Imagine being Alec Baldwin right now. Regardless of your opinion of the guy, you have to feel sorry for him. He killed a person and apparently had no clue the prop gun he was using was loaded. For anyone living in a cave, I am referring to Baldwin shooting a couple of directors this week on the set of his latest movie, “Rust.” Baldwin allegedly shot two people on the set and one of them died. The official accounts so far are calling it an accident. The Pundits on TV are running amuck speculating about what happened.
This blog is not about Baldwin or guns or movie set safety. I am not an expert in any of those areas (except maybe guns used in crimes). Where I am an expert is criminal law, and this tragedy is a perfect example of something I try to explain to people when they ask me, “How can you defend those (guilty) people?”
I explain to them how the criminal justice system works. For example, a fundamental question in every single criminal prosecution is “What crime occurred?” Charges don’t grow on trees. They are the creation of people, called Prosecutors. Prosecutors are people too and can make mistakes. And sometimes reasonable people can disagree about what crime, IF ANY, best fits the facts being alleged. That is where criminal defense attorneys like me come in. We try to educate the prosecutor about facts or legal arguments they may, or may not, have been aware of when they filed the charge. And, if that doesn’t work, we explain it to jurors and let them decide.
The example I normally give is this: Two people bump into each other (don’t laugh, I have that fact pattern right now on a case). One falls down. That person hits their head and eventually dies from the injuries.
That can be charged many different ways. In Washington State it could be Murder First Degree, if the bump was premediated and there was an intent to kill. If there was an intent to kill, but no premeditation? Murder Second Degree. Or maybe the intent was to seriously injure the dead person. That might be Assault First Degree. I am going to reserve a discussion of Felony Murder here since that could fill a book. What if there was only an intent to do the bump, but not to cause harm? IF that is reckless then that becomes Assault Second Degree, less serious, but still a “strike felony”. If the bump was only negligent but caused injury it is Assault Third Degree. If there was intent to assault, but it was not premeditated and/ or committed with the intent to kill, and it was not reckless or negligent? Assault Fourth Degree. And don’t forget Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter, which fit when a death was caused by either Reckless or Negligent Conduct. And if that sounds confusing when you compare the various options and see how they overlap, don’t worry. It’s not you. It is confusing. Finally, above all, don’t forget. It could also be an ACCIDENT, so not a crime at all.
When people ask how can I defend guilty people I point all of this out. I point out that the issue might not be whether they are guilty, but rather what they are guilty of. In Baldwin’s case the range of possibilities is endless. It might be simply an accident. It might be recklessly or negligently causing a death. Then you have to ask WHO was reckless or negligent?
The facts apparently involve an Assistant handing Baldwin a prop gun that turned out to be real. The Assistant called out “Cold Gun” it is claimed, as he handed it to Baldwin, meaning that it was not loaded with anything. Except it was. And not just a blank but an actual real live bullet. The kind that kills people. And did.
Was Baldwin committing a crime by accepting what he was told about the gun being safe? Did he have a “Duty” to inspect it himself? I personally doubt that. Was the Assistant guilty of something? IF he did not inspect the gun before he declared it safe, he definitely could be. That is easily Manslaughter imho. Maybe the Assistant got the gun from another prop guy who was sloppy. Who is guilty then? All of them? None of them? One of them? Which one?
This is what criminal lawyers do all day. We analyze what happened, why, ask ourselves whether that constitutes a crime, and if so, what crime?
Plus, in Baldwin’s situation there is always the Murder Mystery angle. If this was a movie about a movie there might have a plotline where Baldwin was having an affair with the descendant, and she threatened to go public, so he planted a bullet in his gun so he could personally kill her but make it look like an accident. If Hitchcock were the director that might be a plot. It could happen. But I seriously doubt it did. Still, you never know.
Which is why you have to investigate with an open mind, interview witnesses, review photographs, go to the scene of “The Crime” to see for yourself, read the law, and, based on all of that, try to figure out what really occurred. We look at the Law and we look at the Facts and we see how the law applies to those particular facts. Armed with this information we then try to get the prosecutor to reduce or even dismiss the charges.
I had a case like this once. It was horrible. Two young friends playing with guns at home, pretending to play Russian Roulette, thinking the gun was unloaded. It was loaded and one of the friends wound up shooting his best buddy in the head and instantly killing him.
The entire issue was what to call the crime. That case wound up being charged as Manslaughter, which I suspect might be where Baldwin’s case will wind up. If I were to speculate wildly, like a TV Pundit, I might say that one of the prop people might be charged.
But there is also an argument that the movie set was being negligently supervised, that this contributed to the accident and thus whomever was in charge is guilty of Negligent Manslaughter Second Degree. Baldwin was apparently a producer and thus, he was arguably in charge. Since he fired the weapon after accepting it from the assistant as being “safe”, IF it is a negligently supervised set, Baldwin could be charged, especially if he was aware of the supervision problems. Maybe he knew that it was risky to take the word of the assistant because the assistant was not qualified to work with guns. Stranger things have happened.
The bottom line is we won’t know what this case is about until the investigation is complete, the lawyers have had a chance to do their thing and a final decision is made. The most important thing to understand about that is that it is not simple. No matter how simple the Pundits make it sound.