‘Rust’ armorer called ‘sloppy,’ defense says she’s a scapegoat

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'Rust' armorer called 'sloppy,' defense says she's a scapegoat © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Buildings used on the set of the movie “Rust” are seen after filming resumed following the 2021 shooting death in New Mexico of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, in Livingston, Montana, U.S. April 22, 2023. REUTERS/Drone Base/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) -A New Mexico prosecutor on Thursday held the chief weapons handler for “Rust” Hannah Gutierrez responsible for the 2021 fatal shooting of the Western film’s cinematographer while her lawyer said she was being scapegoated for a tragedy.

Gutierrez, 27, listened calmly to the prosecution’s opening statements in her involuntary manslaughter trial. She is accused of bringing live rounds on set – an act strictly forbidden for nearly a century.

She has pleaded not guilty and her lawyers told the jury of five women and seven men that she was blamed for a chaotic, low-budget production where she was overworked, her requests for additional firearms training were ignored, and actor Alec Baldwin broke basic gun safety rules by pointing the revolver at a person and pulling the trigger.

Hutchins was fatally shot after Baldwin was rehearsing on the Santa Fe film set with a reproduction Colt .45 “Peacemaker” revolver that Gutierrez loaded with a live round. Director Joel Souza, who was wounded in the incident, survived.

Charges were dropped against Baldwin last April only to be reinstated on Jan. 19. His lawyers are seeking a June trial. Baldwin, who was also one of the “Rust” producers, has denied responsibility and said the gun fired without him pulling the trigger, adding weapons safety was not his job.

Both an FBI and independent test of the revolver found it would not fire without a trigger pull.

“They’re trying to blame it all on Hannah, a 24-year-old (at the time of the shooting) because she’s an easy target, she’s the least powerful person on that set,” Gutierrez’s lawyer, Jason Bowles, said in his opening statement.

The death of Hutchins was the first on-set fatal shooting since actor Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of the late martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, died in 1993 while filming a movie when his colleague shot him.

A New Mexico state prosecutor called Gutierrez’s work “sloppy and unprofessional, saying she would skip firearm safety checks.

“We believe it was the negligent acts and failures of the defendant Miss Gutierrez that contributed to Miss Hutchins’ death and the live rounds being brought onto the set,” said special prosecutor Jason Lewis, appointed nearly a year ago after two predecessors resigned following a series of legal missteps.

Gutierrez has pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charge as well as one of evidence tampering for allegedly handing off a bag of cocaine to a crew member on Oct. 21, 2021, after the shooting to prevent police from finding it. Each felony charge carries up to 18 months prison time.

Lewis showed photos of live rounds found on set as evidence and said they should have been easy to detect as they had shiny nickel primers, or end caps, while the dummies had dull brass primers and looked aged. He said dummies had holes in the side or ball bearings inside that rattle when shaken.

Bowles countered that many dummy rounds on set had nickel primers while some had no ball bearings and were indistinguishable from live rounds.

He alleged props supplier Seth Kenney introduced the live rounds to the set and props master Sarah Zachary, who worked for Kenney, tampered with the crime scene, disposing of evidence by throwing away rounds after the shooting.

Neither Kenney nor Zachary have been charged, and prosecutors have said there is no evidence Kenney supplied live rounds. Both are listed as potential witnesses by the prosecution and defense.

Police witnesses described a chaotic scene after the shooting as officers tried to secure evidence and stop witnesses from talking to one another. Asked by prosecutor Kari Morrissey whether he saw signs of evidence tampering, former Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Tim Benavidez said ‘no.”.

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