The Unusual Settlement of Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin has settled a lawsuit filed by the loved ones of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who died after being shot on the set of his movie “Rust” last year, by a gun in the hands of Baldwin.


The terms of the settlement may have been surprising to some. Hutchins will now apparently be an executive producer, and work to complete and release the film. But, the fact that the parties have settled is not. Not in light of recent events.


Last week reports emerged that Santa Fe First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies had, in late August, requested $635,500 in “emergency funding” from the state, in case they decided to prosecute anyone in connection with the shooting. The Santa Fe DA’s Office added that if they determined criminal charges were warranted, up to four people could be charged. In response to the request, the New Mexico State Board of Finance gave the DA’s Office only $317,750.


It’s unusual that a District Attorney’s Office would ask for more funding for a prosecution that they say they aren’t yet sure they are going to bring. DA’s offices aren’t supposed to consider whether they have enough money to bring charges. What if the Board of Finance had denied the request outright? Would that affect whether the DA charged anyone? Justice is supposed to be blind—not strapped for cash. The Santa Fe DA’s Office has just signaled to the world that they are committed to pursuing justice, but apparently, only as much justice as $317,750 buys them. And that won’t buy much. Not if they choose to charge Alec Baldwin.


In federal criminal cases, the defendant is often overwhelmed by the might and the limitless financial resources of the federal government. Most people prosecuted by the federal government feel like David versus Goliath. They find their personal savings burned up quickly by attorneys fees, while the federal government has infinite money to pour into convicting a defendant. Even most corporate defendants or well-heeled Wall Street types cannot match the finances of the U.S. government and the Department of Justice.


In this case, if there ever is a criminal case, the roles are bizarrely reversed. Alec Baldwin as a defendant would not be able to outspend the U.S. government in a federal case. But I bet he has more than $317,750. It’s shocking to think of it, but this is a defendant who could win a war of attrition against his potential prosecutors. How would that look if, by the time this case goes to trial, the state agency simply runs out of money for it? Imagine DA Carmack-Altwies alone at the prosecution table in the courtroom, with no money for any help. Meanwhile, across the aisle from her at the defense table would be a half-dozen Ivy League superstars from a white-shoe LA law firm, billing at around a thousand dollars an hour, flanked by investigators, paralegals, jury consultants, and expert witnesses. They would bill $317,750 a day, collectively.


And yet, when the Santa Fe DA announced that up to four people might be charged, it appears that Baldwin’s legal team did the smart thing: they raced to the plaintiffs and made this civil case go away, at whatever cost. Part of that settlement likely included the requirement that Hutchins’s husband, Matthew Hutchins, make a public statement suggesting that he didn’t want to see anyone prosecuted for his wife’s death.


In Mr. Hutchins’s statement on Wednesday, after the settlement terms were reached, he said he had “no interest in engaging in recriminations or attribution of blame” to Mr. Baldwin or any other producers.


Reading between the lines the statement appears to say: “Dear Santa Fe DA’s Office: we do not consider ourselves victims of a crime.”


Keep in mind that most high-profile, high-value settlements are confidential. If it were up to the parties, the fact that a settlement was even reached would be kept secret forever. It’s unusual that the plaintiff would issue a statement like this after a settlement, publicly communicating forgiveness to a prospective criminal defendant. This is also quite a change from Mr. Hutchins’s interview some months ago, when he criticized Baldwin’s defensive comments, saying, “The idea that the person holding the gun and causing it to discharge is not responsible is absurd to me.”


The Santa Fe DA’s Office apparently read the same message in Hutchins’s statement. After news of the settlement broke, they issued their own statement: “The proposed settlement announced today in Matthew Hutchins’ wrongful death case against Rust movie producers, including Alec Baldwin, in the death of Halyna Hutchins will have no impact on District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altweis’ ongoing investigation or her ultimate decision whether to file criminal charges in the case,” said Heather Brewer of the Office of the First Judicial District Attorney.


The DA’s Office had to make that statement. And it’s technically true: prosecutors are not limited by a victim’s settlement with a potential criminal defendant. But practically, a prosecution becomes a lot harder when the victim no longer considers himself a victim, or just flat-out doesn’t want to testify. It actually happens a lot, for more nefarious reasons: sometimes a criminal threatens a victim to prevent them from testifying, and sometimes the prosecutor has to send out an officer to round up the reluctant witness to come to court. Given the choice, no prosecutor wants a reluctant victim in a case.


The Santa Fe DA’s office is in a tough place now. After a year of investigation, they are still not sure they want to charge anyone, and not sure who or even how many, they want to charge. They have a situation where responsibility for Hutchins’s death appears to be spread out among several potential defendants, many of whom will likely point the finger at each other. They have a defendant who can easily outspend them. They have only $317,750 to prosecute anyone with. Now, they have a victim that wants no part in a criminal case. And they have a celebrity defendant. Celebrity defendants are hard to convict even in an airtight case—like, say, when you have DNA, blood evidence, hair evidence, footprints, and a glove at the South Bundy Drive residence. The Hutchins shooting, by contrast, would be a tough case for the prosecution under the best of circumstances. And it’s not the best of circumstances for the DA’s office here.


In the end, the Santa Fe DA’s office may decide they saved enough face with their latest statement, and let this case drift off without charging anyone. One question though: if they do that, what happens to the $317,750?


Danny Cevallos is a legal analyst for NBC and MSNBC and co-founder of the law firm Cevallos & Wong, LLP. He focuses his practice in the areas of state, federal, and territorial criminal defense and civil litigation.

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