'Rust' armorer Hannah Gutierrez's trial begins with each side arguing over safety on set

She was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Halyna Hutchins.

February 22, 2024, 1:54 PM

Opening statements began Thursday in New Mexico in the trial of "Rust" armorer Hannah Gutierrez with the prosecution claiming she did not always adhere to "essential" safety procedures and the defense describing the set as "chaotic."

The weapons handler has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the on-set death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was fatally shot by actor Alec Baldwin on the Santa Fe set while he was handling a prop gun.

She was also subsequently charged with tampering with evidence, with prosecutors alleging she handed off a small bag of cocaine after her interview with police following the shooting on Oct. 21, 2021.

PHOTO: Hannah Gutierrez appears in court in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Feb. 22, 2024.
Hannah Gutierrez appears in court in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Feb. 22, 2024.
Pool via ABC News

Gutierrez has pleaded not guilty. The charges both carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison if convicted.

Baldwin was practicing a cross-draw in a church on the set of the Western when the gun fired a live round, striking Hutchins and director Joel Souza, who suffered a non-life-threatening injury.

Prosecutors told jurors they will attempt to answer two questions during the trial: what events led up to Hutchins' death, and how live ammunition ended up on the set.

"As to both questions, we believe that it was the negligent acts and failures of the defendant, Ms. Gutierrez, that resulted in both the acts that contributed to Ms. Hutchins' death and to the live rounds being brought on to the set," prosecutor Jason Lewis told jurors during his opening statement.

PHOTO: Prosecutors show jurors a photo that they say appears to show a live bullet on the set of "Rust" on Oct. 10, 2021, during opening statements.
Prosecutors show jurors a photo that they say appears to show a live bullet on the set of "Rust" on Oct. 10, 2021, during opening statements.
Pool via ABC News

Lewis told jurors that while they will refer to the firearms on set as prop guns, they were "legitimate firearms." While showing jurors a photo of the gun involved in the shooting, he said the firearm was made to look old but was in fact a "brand new and perfectly functioning gun when it arrived on set." He also showed jurors photos of what he said appeared to be live bullets throughout the set and a suspected live bullet in the armorer's lap captured before the shipment of dummy rounds from the production's ammunitions supplier arrived.

Lewis said that it was Gutierrez's job as armorer to check each round to make sure there weren't live bullets and to check the firearm before it was brought on set -- but claimed she did not always adhere to "essential" safety procedures.

"The evidence will show that the defendant treated the safety protocols as if they were optional, rather than if people's lives counted on her doing her job correctly," he said.

He said jurors will hear from FBI analysts and firearms experts, as well as crew members who will testify that her work was "unprofessional and sloppy." Another crew member will also testify that Gutierrez handed her a bag of what appeared to be cocaine following the armorer's interview with police, he said.

Defense attorney Jason Bowles countered during his opening statement that the production and state have made Gutierrez a "scapegoat" in the tragic shooting.

"Just because there was a tragedy does not mean that a crime was committed," he said.

PHOTO: Hannah Gutierrez arrives at the First Judicial District Courthouse in Santa Fe, N.M., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, for the start of her trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence.
Hannah Gutierrez arrives at the First Judicial District Courthouse in Santa Fe, N.M., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, for the start of her trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence. Prosecutors in New Mexico are pursuing accountability for the 2021 death of a cinematographer who was fatally shot by actor Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal for the Western film.
Gabriela Campos/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP, Pool

He cited the New Mexico Occupational Safety and Health Administration's investigation into the shooting that he said "found numerous faults on production's part, not on Ms. Gutierrez-Reed."

He claimed that the production created a "chaotic scene" by giving Gutierrez props duties that took away from her job as lead armorer. He said she wasn't given sufficient time to train the crew on the firearms, including Baldwin, whom he argued was inappropriately handling the gun by pointing it at the crew.

"You're not going to hear anything about [Gutierrez] being in that church or firing that weapon -- that was Alec Baldwin," Bowles said.

Bowles took aim at the photos of ammunition shown by the state Thursday, arguing it would not be possible to distinguish between live and dummy rounds from a photo. He also claimed that one of the crew members tampered with the scene following the shooting and got rid of evidence that was never recovered.

"What we've got here is theories based on evidence that has already been tampered with," he said.

Bowles told jurors they can expect to hear from veteran Hollywood armorer Thell Reed, the defendant's father, and first assistant director David Halls, who will testify to her competence. Halls, who handed Baldwin the Colt .45 revolver, was charged with negligent use of a deadly weapon and sentenced in March 2023 to six months unsupervised probation as part of a plea deal.

"Ms. Gutierrez-Reed did the best job she could under very difficult circumstances," Bowles said.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Jury selection was completed Wednesday, with 12 jurors and four alternates selected for the case. Of the 12 jurors, seven are men and five are women. The four alternates are all men.

Leading up to the trial, Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer last week denied the defense's motions to dismiss the case and sever the tampering with evidence charge. She also allowed some of the prosecution's evidence on the armorer's alleged drug use to be admissible.

Bowles had argued in court filings that the substance in the bag was never tested and there is no evidence of Gutierrez using it on or off set. He claimed she was charged with the offense "in an effort to cause unfair prejudice" to the defendant during the trial.

PHOTO: Movie set armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, right, speaks with a sheriff's deputy on the set of the movie "Rust," shortly after the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins by Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal, Oct. 21, 2021, in New Mexico.
Movie set armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, right, speaks with a sheriff's deputy as colleagues react on the set of the move "Rust," shortly after the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins by Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal, Oct. 21, 2021, in New Mexico.
Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office via AP

Her attorneys have previously said they expect a jury will find her not guilty. They said Gutierrez "pleaded to provide more firearms training" on the set but was "denied and brushed aside."

Prosecutors have claimed in court filings that they have "substantial evidence" that Gutierrez unwittingly brought live rounds onto the set.

During a motions hearing last week, special prosecutor Kari Morrissey said the state plans to "demonstrate that she was impaired while in possession of ammunition." She said they also have photographs that show live rounds on the set.

"There were a series of negligent acts that we have very concrete evidence of that Ms. Gutierrez was engaging in these negligent acts as she moves through the filming of the movie" over several days, Morrissey told the judge.

PHOTO: In this Oct. 23, 2021, file photo, the Bonanza Creek Ranch, which was used for the set of the movie "Rust," is shown in Santa Fe, N.M.
In this Oct. 23, 2021, file photo, the Bonanza Creek Ranch, which was used for the set of the movie "Rust," is shown in Santa Fe, N.M.
Jae C. Hong/AP, FILE

Baldwin has also been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deadly shooting. He has pleaded not guilty.

The actor was initially charged along with Gutierrez last year, before the special prosecutors who took over the case dismissed his charges. Months later, a grand jury indicted him on involuntary manslaughter.

In response to the indictment in January, Baldwin's attorneys, Luke Nikas and Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel, said, "We look forward to our day in court." His trial is currently scheduled to begin in August.

ABC News' Vera Drymon contributed to this report.

Related Topics

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events