Pro/Con: Unintentional movie-set shooting was a tragic accident
From the column: "A troubling trend in American law (is) where everything bad that happens, even if unintentional, is treated as a crime."
The unintentional shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in 2021 on the film “Rust” set in New Mexico is tragic. But not all tragedies translate to criminal behavior and being accused of a crime.
The Santa Fe County district attorney’s decision to charge actor Alec Baldwin (who is also one of several producers on the film) with involuntary manslaughter is part of a troubling trend in American law, where everything bad that happens, even if unintentional, is treated as a crime.
Criminal Law 101 teaches that two critical requirements of criminal law demand that the government prove two things: one, that the defendant committed a wrongful act, and two, that the defendant acted with criminal intent, known in Latin as a “mens rea,” a guilty mind.
The power to prosecute and imprison a person is the greatest power the state routinely exercises over its citizens. Because of the harshness of criminal penalties, criminal laws almost always seek to avoid prosecuting people who did not intend to do anything wrong. With few exceptions, unintentional conduct is not a crime.
There appears to be no doubt that Baldwin shot Ms. Hutchins. But the power given to a prosecutor is the ability to use a common-sense approach in determining if it is a criminal act. This includes asking if there is evidence that he was aware that his actions would result in her death. The evidence indicates that not only was Baldwin’s conduct not intentional, it was also likely not even careless. It has also been widely reported that he carefully followed the trusted advice of the set’s armorer and directors that the gun was “cold,” that is, not loaded. Baldwin did not have a “mens rea,” a guilty mind.
Our legal system has in place a comprehensive and robust system of appropriately compensating people harmed by unintentional, but negligent, conduct: civil lawsuits that seek monetary compensation for those losses. Thankfully, in this case, that system of laws has already worked. It was reported that Ms. Hutchins’ family reached a financial settlement with the film’s production company and Baldwin in October.
This was the right way for this case to be resolved. There is an essential difference between civil lawsuits for injuries that rightly compensate the affected parties and criminal laws that seek to punish people needlessly for accidental conduct.
This case is sadly similar to the death of actor Brandon Lee, son of the actor and martial artist Bruce Lee, who was killed in 1993 on the set of the film “The Crow” after being unintentionally shot by fellow actor Michael Massee with an improperly prepared prop gun. In that case, the parties reached a civil settlement, but, thankfully, Massee was not charged with any crime.
The result should be the same in this case. Our country has a problem with mass incarceration. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than almost any other country in the world. There are as many people in jails and prisons in the United States as in China, even though the latter is an openly authoritarian country with four times the population.
One way to put a small dent in our country’s era of mass incarceration is to enforce stringently the “mens rea” requirement in criminal laws and to stop treating every tragedy as a crime.
Lisa Monet Wayne is executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (nacdl.org), a professional group headquartered in Washington, D.C.