Should Alec Baldwin have exercised his right to remain silent?

Alec Baldwin’s public approach to clearing his name is risky, say experts. Picture Lucy Nicholson Reuters

Alec Baldwin’s public approach to clearing his name is risky, say experts. Picture Lucy Nicholson Reuters

Published Jan 28, 2023


By Thomas Floyd and Travis M. Andrews

Prosecutors waited until last week to announce that they will charge Alec Baldwin in the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico film set, but the 64-year-old actor has pleaded his case in the court of public opinion since the October 2021 incident.

The actor has defended himself in several high-profile interviews and social media posts in which he deflected responsibility for the shooting, even filing a lawsuit against the film's armourer and first assistant director, among others, whom he accuses of negligence.

Baldwin's public approach to clearing his name is risky, according to some legal and crisis-management experts, who suggested that by centering himself in the story, Baldwin could have antagonised prosecutors and lost public sympathy.

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"He should never have spoken out after the incident," said Susan Tellem, a senior partner at California-based firm Tellem Grody PR, via email. "It set the stage for future legal problems, and here we are."

"His training has dictated that he would get out in front of this, would get his viewpoint out in the court of public opinion, would get out all his statements, his interviews, and show the world that this was just a horrible accident," said David Schwartz, a partner at the New York- and D.C.-based law firm Gerstman Schwartz LLP.

"In the world of court and criminal law, this is a real mistake."

A representative for Baldwin did not immediately provide comment from the actor or his counsel.

The actor is expected to be charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter after he handled a .45 Long Colt revolver that discharged and struck Hutchins on the set of the low-budget Western film "Rust".

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the armourer tasked with checking weapons for safety, faces the same charges.

First assistant director Dave Halls signed a plea deal for the charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon, prosecutors said.

Baldwin made his first public statement the day after the shooting, which occurred on October 21, 2021. "I'm fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family," Baldwin said on Twitter.

"My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna."

Less than two weeks later, Baldwin posted screenshots on Instagram featuring comments from "Rust" costume designer Terese Magpale Davis defending the safety conditions on set.

That December, he posted a letter from the cast and crew of "Rust" disputing the narrative that the film had a "chaotic, dangerous, and exploitative workplace".

Actor Alec Baldwin has taken a very vocal approach towards clearing his name, say experts. Picture: Carlo Allegri Reuters

That same month, the actor gave an hour-long prime-time interview on ABC in which he claimed that he did not pull the gun's trigger and that he felt no responsibility for Hutchins' death.

"Someone put a live bullet in a gun, a bullet that wasn't even supposed to be on the property," Baldwin told the interviewer, George Stephanopoulos. "Someone is ​responsible for what happened, and I can't say who that is, but I know it's not me."

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull the trigger at them. Never," he said.

Last August, FBI forensics reports suggested that the gun would not have discharged without its trigger being pulled while the weapon was cocked.

Nonetheless, Baldwin doubled down on his assertions during an appearance on Chris Cuomo's podcast.

He put the blame on Gutierrez-Reed and Halls in a CNN interview later that month, saying: "Those are the two people that are responsible for what happened."

Renato Mariotti, a Chicago-based partner at the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and a former federal prosecutor, said that, from a legal perspective, "there's only downside" in speaking to the media while being the subject of a criminal investigation.

Alec Baldwin. Picture: File

"If Alec Baldwin said something to the public that was helpful to him, he could not introduce that statement at trial," Mariotti said.

"It would be hearsay. If the government tried to introduce a statement that it thought was hurtful to him, they could. It would be considered an admission. What he's doing is potentially giving the government the ammunition against him."

Evan Nierman, CEO of global crisis public relations firm Red Banyan, said Baldwin seemed "woefully unprepared" during the interview with Stephanopoulos, which Nierman views as "the inflection point" in a series of poor choices.

Apart from Baldwin's own public comments, Nierman said, his lawyer's statement last week, saying they had been "blindsided" by the impending charges against the actor, was also unwise.

"It's completely the wrong thing to say, and all it does is cement this narrative that celebrities in general and Baldwin in particular are detached from reality," he said. "How could you be shocked?"

Though Baldwin probably had no malicious intent on the set that day, Nierman suggested that he could have curried far more public sympathy by accepting a modicum of responsibility.

"You can explain what happened. You can provide valuable context. You can make your case. But if you're not fundamentally willing to accept responsibility, then you don't bring closure.

“All you do is spark more discussion," Nierman said. "Baldwin made his problem infinitely worse because he was so brazen as to position himself as a victim."

Baldwin's public attempts to cast blame elsewhere may have backfired legally, according to Rachel Fiset, a managing partner at the California firm Zweiback, Fiset & Zalduendo.

"The deflection of blame that was constantly coming out of his mouth, even as he struggled to deal with this accident – because I think everybody believes that was an accident – probably just rubbed [the prosecutors] the wrong way, because what prosecutors want to see is remorse," Fiset said.

"They want to see that somebody has taken a thoughtful, measured approach to something as tragic as this and that it would never happen again."

Baldwin alleged in a November lawsuit that the shooting was caused by the negligence of Gutierrez-Reed, who was in charge of guns and ammunition on the set; Halls, who handed the gun to Baldwin and said it was safe; Sarah Zachry, who was in charge of props; and Seth Kenney, who supplied the guns and ammunition on the set.

Halls filed a countersuit against Baldwin.

"I don't have as much of a problem with that as I do the public statements," Schwartz said, calling the lawsuit "a good mechanism to get your points out there“.

In October, Hutchins's family settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with Baldwin, companies involved in producing "Rust" and several members of the crew.

Per terms of the settlement, "Rust" will resume filming in January, with Hutchins's widower, Matthew, serving as an executive producer.

Nierman predicted that the movie will get a lot of attention because of morbid curiosity, which may not be good for Baldwin in the long term.

"Even though there's no video of the incident itself," he said, "this film is going to create indelible images of Alec Baldwin, in Western attire, holding a gun."

Eriq Gardner, a national correspondent for “Puck” and former legal editor at large for the “Hollywood Reporter”, pointed out that Baldwin isn't the only high-profile person to publicly defend himself despite a pending legal case.

Gardner noted that Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder and CEO of the fallen cryptocurrency giant FTX, who faces several charges from the Justice Department, has defended himself in numerous interviews and a newly launched newsletter.

"It used to be that when you become a defendant in the case, or you're even a potential defendant in a case, you shut up," Gardner said. "You listen to your lawyers. You become very, very careful. I think that's becoming less so now."

Nierman said counselling celebrity clients isn't always a simple task. "They've done so many interviews for so many years that they feel impervious," he said.

Now that Baldwin is expected to be charged, Mariotti, the former federal prosecutor, said the actor should let his attorneys speak for him.

"Mr. Baldwin should exercise his right to remain silent," he said, "which is what he should have done from the beginning."