Prosecutors in New Mexico are wrong to charge actor Alec Baldwin with manslaughter in the accidental shooting of Halyna Hutchins. Clearly Baldwin had no intention of firing a loaded gun. It was a tragic accident, and accidents are generally not crimes unless a criminal state of mind is involved. Whenever an innocent person is killed by the actions of another and there is a temptation to seek criminal liability on the part of the shooter, it can sometimes be found. Other times it can’t.
In this case, Baldwin claims he was explicitly told the gun contained no live ammunition. Even if prosecutors can question this self-righteous statement, it will be impossible for them to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin believed he risked Hutchins’ life by pulling the trigger or cocking the gun.
As Baldwin previously said in an interview “someone is responsible for what happened, and I can’t say who that is, but I know it’s not me.” It’s true that someone, or several people, were responsible for allowing live ammunition in a gun to be fired on set. But without a conspiracy – and there’s no evidence that one existed here – criminal guilt is personal. Prosecutors would have to prove, not that there was negligence on set, but that Baldwin himself was personally responsible for the gross negligence that led to the death of Halyna Hutchins. Based on the evidence that has been made public, that burden cannot be met. An actor, even one who was also a producer, has the right to rely on the assurance of the person responsible for the armament that he has been provided with a gun without live ammunition.
New Mexico’s statute defining involuntary manslaughter, like the laws in many other states, grants prosecutors enormous discretion because the terms of the statute are vague and open to multiple interpretations. This is what section 30-2-3B states: “Involuntary manslaughter consists of manslaughter committed in the commission of an unlawful act that does not amount to a crime, or in the commission of a lawful act which results in death in an unlawful manner or without the may cause caution and circumspection.”
What constitutes “due caution and circumspection” is unclear, as is the concept of a lawful act that could cause death “in an unlawful manner”.
Thomas Jefferson once said that a criminal statute should only be constitutional if it can be understood by a person reading it “on the run”. An interesting image! I’m reading the statute sitting down, having studied and taught criminal and constitutional law for over half a century, and I’m not sure what it means. It is hard to imagine that Alec Baldwin could read this statute and understand that firing a gun that he had been told did not contain live ammunition would be either an unlawful act or a lawful act that unlawfully kills could cause.
Early in our history, the courts ruled that crimes must be narrowly defined and reasonably understandable through the reading of pre-existing statutes. Criminal law, unlike tort and contract law, is governed by statutes, not common law. Vague terms cannot be used for tragic circumstances calling for retaliation.
Prosecutors in New Mexico can take some comfort in a highly publicized case of a shooting incident in Minnesota that resulted in a police officer being convicted and jailed. Former officer Kim Potter thought she fired a taser at a fleeing felon. But she accidentally pulled her wrong firearm and shot the victim with live ammunition, killing him. There was no question that Potter accidentally fired the wrong gun. So despite her long record with the police, she was convicted. That case is now on appeal and the conviction should be reversed, but due to the current atmosphere surrounding police shootings of African-American men (the victim in the Potter case was a teenager), it is possible that the appeals courts come to the case in Minnesota. wrong decision.
But two mistakes don’t make a right. Criminal law should be reserved for willful, willful and willful acts. If negligence can serve as the basis for a conviction, it should at least be the kind of negligence that the defendant could have foreseen would have a tragic outcome.
Alec Baldwin is a rich and powerful celebrity. The law must be applied fairly to him as to others. Sometimes people like Baldwin are favored by their celebrity. Sometimes they are disadvantaged. The question is whether this criminal prosecution would have been initiated if the person who fired the weapon was unknown. In an earlier case, an actor named Brandon Lee was accidentally shot and killed by a rifle loaded with blanks, which unbeknownst to the shooter had shards of metal in its barrel causing the tragic death. The shooter was not charged in that case, but the participants faced civil charges. (I consulted on that case.) That seems like the right decision. Everyone involved in the Baldwin case has been charged and some have settled. That also seems to be the right solution for a tragic accident.
Succeed Alan DershowitzTwitter: @AlanDershFacebook: @AlanMDershowitzNew podcast: The Dershow, on Spotify, YouTube and iTunesdersh.substack.com
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author himself.
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