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Alec Baldwin’s manslaughter trial begins with disagreements over who is responsible for on-set safety

Opening statements began Wednesday in Alec Baldwin’s manslaughter trial, with both sides focusing on set safety and firearms — key issues that will continue to be addressed as the case progresses.

As the first to speak, special prosecutor Erlinda Ocampo Johnson told jurors in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, courtroom that Baldwin “violated basic firearm safety rules” on the set Rust.

Baldwin, who starred in and co-produced the Western, was holding a gun that went off during a rehearsal of a scene, striking and killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 26, in October 2021. Director Joel Souza was also injured when the gun went off.

In opening statements, Alex Spiro, attorney for Johnson and Baldwin, detailed who was at fault for the facts found.

Johnson’s statements focused on Baldwin’s alleged reckless use of the gun, a general lack of safety on the film set and a claim that the gun would not have discharged without the trigger being pulled — something the actor has repeatedly denied.

“The evidence will show that the defendant, Alexander Baldwin, is someone who pretended to use a real gun and violated basic firearm safety rules,” Johnson said.

WATCH | Ex-prosecutor says Rust set had ‘fundamental security breaches’:

Former prosecutor says Rust suffered from ‘fundamental security breaches’

Matt Long, a former prosecutor specializing in firearms and violent crimes, says that while Alec Baldwin faces up to 18 months in prison for his role in the fatal shooting on the set of Rust, the actor could face “lifelong consequences.”

Spiro, in his opening statement to the jury, stated that “those basic rules do not apply on a movie set” and argued that handling weapons was a normal part of that particular workplace.

Spiro also addressed two issues that will be critical to the trial: whether the gun — a replica of an 1873 revolver — malfunctioned and whether Baldwin intentionally pulled the trigger.

Spiro rejected Johnson’s arguments that later tests showed the gun was in good working order and focused on Baldwin’s role as an actor, and that his duties, Spiro argued, did not include ensuring the gun’s safety.

“The evidence will show that on a movie set, safety must be ensured before an actor is given a weapon,” Spiro told the jury.

Prop or weapon?

This discussion is likely to continue to come up during the deliberations and has already produced results.

“The narrow issue is really … is this firearm a prop or is it a real weapon,” Matthew Long, a former Arizona prosecutor and defense attorney, told CBC News. “That really seems to be the narrow question that both sides are focused on.”

Long said there will be arguments as the defense seeks to show that Baldwin acted with a reasonable level of safety for an actor on a movie set. The prosecution, he said, has a higher bar to meet: that despite being an actor who believed he was holding a prop when Baldwin pointed the gun, he had the same obligations as someone off a movie set.

“Their burden — and I think this is incredibly difficult to overcome — is, in this context, was there a real risk of death and did (Baldwin) deliberately ignore that risk?” Long said. “And the prosecutor is essentially saying, ‘Gun safety rules apply everywhere, including here.’”

Baldwin talks on the phone in the parking lot of the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office after being questioned in connection with the shooting on the set of the movie Rust outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, on October 21, 2021. (Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican/Associated Press)

That debate began Wednesday when Spiro and Johnson disagreed over the guilt of the film’s gunsmith, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in April. She is currently serving an 18-month sentence but is appealing that conviction.

Johnson argued that Baldwin failed to conduct a safety check of Gutierrez-Reed’s firearm and therefore failed to notice that the gun contained a live round rather than blanks.

It was Baldwin’s disinterest in on-set safety protocols and his reluctance to conduct a safety check on Gutierrez-Reed because he “didn’t want to offend her” that led to Hutchins’ death, Johnson said.

“The evidence will show, ladies and gentlemen, that as in many workplaces, there are people who act recklessly and endanger others, and act without due regard for the safety of others,” she said. “That, as you will hear, was the defendant Alexander Baldwin.”

An actor’s only job is to act, the defense claims

Earlier Wednesday, Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer agreed with the defense that Baldwin’s role as co-producer Rust it had no bearing on the case, after Johnson unsuccessfully tried to argue that Baldwin was “fully aware” of his safety obligations as a co-producer and had a special responsibility — beyond that of an actor —