Whether or not you agree with the two counts of involuntary manslaughter recently levied against actor Alec Baldwin may depend on your personal feelings toward him—and by extension your feelings toward the Hollywood elite. Baldwin has made no secret of his left-leaning views; his most memorable role of the last several years was arguably his impersonation lampooning former President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. He's not a conservative hero.
Baldwin is also guilty of some pretty unsavory things. As chronicled in 2021 by S.E. Cupp in the New York Daily News, the actor has had a series of high-profile incidents that call into question his, er, judgment, which include using slurs against gay people and assaulting a man over a parking spot.
But having a loathsome past doesn't render someone guilty of manslaughter. Even the most distasteful defendants deserve the same level of fairness—to have their charges evaluated based solely on the facts at hand. And the charges here are dubious at best, political theater at worst.
In October 2021, Baldwin was on the set of Rust when he shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a prop gun. The death was ruled an accident, which no one in the case disputes. The prosecution says that shouldn't matter. "Just because it's an accident doesn't mean that it's not criminal," said New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies. "Unintentional…means they didn't mean to do it. They didn't have the intent to kill. But it happened anyway….They didn't exercise due caution or circumspection and that's what happened here."
If convicted of the first involuntary manslaughter charge, Baldwin faces up to 18 months behind bars. If convicted of the second—to which prosecutors tacked on a firearm enhancement—he faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.
Carmack-Altwies makes her case sound like a slam dunk. It is anything but.
The case comes down to what the word negligence means under the law. It doesn't refer to a careless, airheaded moment with deadly consequences. That negligence has to be criminal, which under the New Mexico statute requires "that the defendant must possess subjective knowledge 'of the danger or risk to others posed by his or her actions.'"
Does that mean that Baldwin is blameless? No. Does that mean that the prosecution will have an easy time convincing a jury that he is criminally culpable? Also no. "The prosecution would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was subjectively aware of the danger: that he actually thought about the possibility that the gun might be loaded, and proceeded to point it and pull the trigger despite that," writes Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA. "That's much harder than just to show carelessness, or even gross carelessness."
It reminded me of the case against Kyle Rittenhouse, who was prosecuted for shooting three men and killing two during the 2020 riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin. If you watched his trial in full, it was abundantly clear that he acted in self-defense, despite being an objectionable character to many people. But Rittenhouse was a symbol, his prosecution almost a foregone conclusion demanded by the political moment. And juries aren't supposed to deliver convictions based on how popular a defendant is.
So why bring the case against Baldwin? I'd venture to guess it's not because the government thinks that the actor, unpalatable as he may be, needs to spend five years in prison to protect public safety. Andrea Reeb, a special prosecutor helping on the case, provided a clue during the national press tour she did alongside Carmack-Altwies. "We're trying to definitely make it clear that everybody's equal under the law, including A-list actors like Alec Baldwin," she said. Ironically, one wonders if these charges would have materialized had no one famous been involved and had it not attracted the attention of the world.