'Rust' armorer Hannah Gutierrez's trial set to begin: What to know

Jury selection is set to begin Wednesday in the involuntary manslaughter case.

February 21, 2024, 5:03 AM

More than two years after cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the New Mexico set of "Rust," the film's weapons handler is set to go on trial in the high-profile case.

Armorer Hannah Gutierrez was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the October 2021 on-set death. She faces an additional charge of tampering with evidence, with state prosecutors claiming she handed off a small bag of cocaine following her interview with police the day of the shooting.

Gutierrez has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence. She has not been charged with any drug offenses.

Actor Alec Baldwin, who was practicing a cross-draw with a Colt .45 revolver when the gun fired a live bullet that struck Hutchins, was also recently re-charged with involuntary manslaughter after prosecutors initially dropped the case. Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Jury selection in Gutierrez's case is scheduled to begin Wednesday in Santa Fe County after the judge denied the defense's latest effort to dismiss the charges.

PHOTO: "Rust" armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed poses in an undated selfie.
"Rust" armorer Hannah Gutierrez poses in an undated selfie.
Courtesy Thell Reed

Seating the jury

Jury selection could be challenging for such a high-profile case, Kate Mangels, a partner at Kinsella Holley Iser Kump Steinsapir LLP in Los Angeles, told ABC News.

Potential jurors knowing general information about the case wouldn't be enough to disqualify them, she said. But both the prosecution and defense will "pay very close attention in jury selection to make sure no one ends up on the jury who already has feelings about this."

Potential jurors' opinions about firearms and drug use could also factor in, she said. With the tampering with evidence charge, prosecutors allege she handed off a small bag of cocaine after her interview with police following the shooting on Oct. 21, 2021.

Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer also ruled last week that some text message evidence from prosecutors related to Gutierrez's alleged drug use can be admissible.

PHOTO: In this Oct. 23, 2021 file photo a musician plays a violin behind a photograph of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a vigil in her honor in Albuquerque, N.M.
In this Oct. 23, 2021 file photo a musician plays a violin behind a photograph of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a vigil in her honor in Albuquerque, N.M.
Andres Leighton/AP, FILE

Gross negligence alleged

During the trial, prosecutors will attempt to prove to jurors that Gutierrez's gross negligence led to live ammunition being on the set and Hutchins' accidental killing, according to Brian Buckmire, a trial attorney at Hamilton Clarke, LLP in New York.

"This is involuntary manslaughter. This isn't that Hannah Gutierrez-Reed intended for Halyna Hutchins or anyone else to be injured or killed on that set," Buckmire told ABC News Live. "What they're trying to paint is this picture of a very negligent armorer."

Gutierrez was charged with two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter in the alternative, and it will be up to a jury to decide which charge, if any, applied. One of the charges alleges that negligent use of a deadly weapon led to Hutchins' death, while the other alleges there was negligence "without due caution or circumspection." Both are punishable by up to 18 months in jail if convicted.

Prosecutors will likely present different theories as to what the wrongful underlying act was and leave the jury to decide if any one of those led to Hutchins' death, Mangels said.

"Was it being grossly negligent in the storage of shells? Was it drug use that caused someone to put something in the wrong place? Was it a lack of experience or supervision?" she said. "There's no question here that there was some action that led to a death and I don't think there's any allegation that anything was done intentionally to cause harm or cause death, and so it's really sort of what the theory of the underlying action is."

Gutierrez's attorneys have previously said they expect a jury will find her not guilty. They said she "pleaded to provide more firearms training" on the set but was "denied and brushed aside." They also said Gutierrez -- who had both armor and prop duties on the set -- asked to perform her armorer duties more "for safety reasons" but was "told by production to focus on props."

Joshua Kastenberg, a law professor at the University of New Mexico's School of Law, told ABC News it appears that both sides have strong arguments to make.

Allowing the drug use evidence was an "important win" for the prosecution, he said. Prosecutors have also indicated they have "substantial evidence" that Gutierrez brought the live rounds on set -- something she has denied -- without revealing much of what that is to the public.

"Both sides may be keeping it quiet in order not to infect a jury pool," he said.

For the defense, the fact that Gutierrez was not holding the gun when it fired is a "strong built-in defense," Kastenberg said. "It still matters that she did not pull the trigger."

For a conviction in the case, the jury will have to unanimously find Gutierrez guilty of one of the two involuntary manslaughter counts. That runs the risk of a hung jury, Kasternberg said.

"Sometimes, these alternative charges can wrap a jury up into deliberating which of the two are true and you can get an acquittal that way because you need a unanimous jury for a single charge," Kasternberg said. "If you have a juror who says, 'I'm gonna vote for this one, but not that one, and that's my final word,' and you have another juror doing the opposite, well, then you have a hung jury."

Will Hannah Gutierrez testify?

Several "Rust" crewmembers are included on the state's and defense's list of witnesses who may be called to testify during the anticipated two-week trial -- including director Joel Souza, who suffered a non-life-threatening injury in the shooting, and David Halls, the first assistant director who handed Baldwin the Colt .45 revolver. Halls 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.

The defense's witness list also includes Gutierrez's father, Thell Reed, an armorer and movie consultant.

Whether Gutierrez testifies in her own defense will likely not be revealed until after the prosecution rests its case, Mangels said.

"In any criminal case, that's always a huge decision for the defendant and their legal counsel to make, as to whether or not to testify," she said. "There's big risks because you open yourself up to cross-examination, but it's a way to sort of tell your story directly to the jury."

Most of the time, defendants do not testify, Kasternberg said.

"There may be a good reason for her testifying and being subjected to cross-examination, and the reason is, she wasn't the trigger person," he said.

PHOTO: The Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 23, 2021.
The Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 23, 2021.
Jae C. Hong/AP, FILE

What this trial could mean for Baldwin's case

Baldwin has not been listed as a potential witness by either side in the trial, though Buckmire said he expects the defense to use his indictment to "point the finger" at the actor.

"Alec Baldwin wears multiple hats on the 'Rust' set -- he's not just the lead actor, he is also the producer," Buckmire said. "Part of Gutierrez-Reed's defense is that this is a chaotic kind of movie set where corners were cut and funding was not where it needed to be."

If she is ultimately convicted, Baldwin's counsel will likely use that to point the finger at her and say she was found responsible, Buckmire said.

Gutierrez's trial happening first also gives Baldwin's attorneys an advantage, Mangels said.

"It's really giving Baldwin's attorneys a nice preview of what the prosecution is going to probably try to do with him," she said.

Related Topics