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How the 'Rust' settlement could affect any criminal case. What to know

LA Times logo LA Times 10/5/2022 Anousha Sakoui, Meg James
The set of "Rust" at Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe, N.M. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal) © Provided by LA Times The set of "Rust" at Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe, N.M. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

News that the husband of Halyna Hutchins has reached a settlement with actor Alec Baldwin and other producers over the shooting of his wife on the set of "Rust" stunned many in Hollywood and beyond.

After all, Matthew Hutchins previously had angrily blamed Baldwin and others for negligence in the death of his wife, a tragedy that became a rallying cry for safer film sets nationwide. Now, Hutchins has agreed to serve as executive producer on the film that is set to resume production in January.

Speculation that the proposed settlement would influence the ongoing criminal investigation into the accident was swiftly dispelled Wednesday when Santa Fe County Dist. Atty. Mary Carmack-Altwies vowed to proceed with the case, in which she said up to four people, including Baldwin, could be charged. "No one is above the law," her office said in a statement.

Although the settlement could be affected by any criminal charges that may be brought against Baldwin and other crew members, legal experts said it could certainly complicate their case.

For example, it could be a problem for the district attorney if she had planned to call Matthew Hutchins to the stand, typically described as a "spark of life" witness, to talk about the victim.

"If he's going to testify that he believes that it was an accident, it's certainly not helpful for your case if you're trying to pursue murder charges," said trial attorney and former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani.

Another potential challenge for the prosecution: Halting the civil case will limit one source of possible evidence prosecutors could use.

"Information that will come from discovery, witnesses, depositions, subpoenas, anything like that, can only hurt [Baldwin] in a criminal case, so I think them shutting down this civil case was an extremely smart move," said Los Angeles personal injury attorney Miguel Custodio, co-founder of Custodio and Dubey LLP.

Nonetheless, Custodio and other legal experts said that Wednesday’s proposed civil resolution, which still must be approved by a judge, will not derail a criminal prosecution.

“The thing to understand about criminal cases is that it's not up to the victim to bring the case, it's up to the state of New Mexico to bring the case,” said Maryam Ahranjani, a law professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

"If they feel that there is value to the public in bringing a criminal case, and if they can prove the material elements of whatever charge beyond a reasonable doubt, then they may still bring a case, regardless of what happened in the civil system,” Ahranjani added.

In New Mexico, which has seen a dramatic surge in Hollywood film productions, the D.A. also could face local pressure to press charges, some observers said.

“The prosecutor needs to be independent and make the best decision for the people she represents — the people who elected her and those who live there and probably feel very strongly about this case,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "The D.A. may feel there is a strong public interest in bringing a case, perhaps tell people that they have to be more responsible in that situation."

While the settlement brings an end to one prong of civil litigation, other lawsuits remain pending in New Mexico and Los Angeles, as well as the potential for criminal charges.

Given the outcry from film crews in the wake of Hutchins' death and the effect on the local film industry, the prosecutors may want to use this case to make a stand on set safety.

"It really seems like the state of New Mexico, which has seen increasing movie productions in the state, I think they really want to send a strong signal out to not only this current project and producers, but to future movie production sets that intend on filming in New Mexico that it's OK to be a [low] budget movie and to cut some corners, but safety is not a corner that should ever be cut," Custodio said. "And I think they are going to most likely charge [Baldwin]."

To be sure, an attorney for Baldwin has said that the district attorney has not said whether she will bring any charges. And Baldwin has denied wrongdoing, and said he did not pull the trigger on the gun.

In one similar case, that of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones who was killed when she was hit by a train on a Georgia film set, the family settled their suit, but the director of the movie "Midnight Rider" was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served a prison sentence.

"If you have a case where there's a civil settlement, and the family tells the D.A. that they don't want there to be criminal charges and they feel like there's closure from the civil case, sometimes that influences the D.A.'s office, but sometimes it doesn't because it's a completely independent decision," said Jeff Harris, of Harris Penn, who represented the Jones family in their wrongful death suit in 2014.

But ultimately Tobias didn't think the settlement would affect any criminal case.

“At least some jurors might be aware of the family’s settlement with Baldwin and the producers," Tobias said. “But the civil settlement doesn't have any clear legal effect on potential charges.”

In the criminal case, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office gathered evidence for more than six months. FBI analysts tested the weapon Baldwin used, concluding that the trigger had to have been pulled for the gun to fire. Now it is up to Carmack-Altwies and the special prosecutor she appointed to assess whether crimes occurred.

“The standard in civil cases is much different than it is in a criminal case,” said Ahranjani. “It’s just not the same.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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