Susan Estrich: The charges against Alec Baldwin

From the commentary: It's clear that whatever else happens, sets should be safer as a result of what Baldwin did.

Alec Baldwin
FILE PHOTO: Alec Baldwin arrives at the 2nd Annual NFL Honors in New Orleans, Louisiana, February 2, 2013.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Should Alec Baldwin have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of the cinematographer on the movie set of "Rust"?

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich commentary
Tribune graphic
More Susan Estrich:
From the commentary: If Stormy Daniels were all he had to worry about, Donald Trump would be in better shape than he is. Stay tuned.
From the commentary: The antisemitism on college campuses coincides with a troubling rise in anti-Israel sentiment.
From the commentary: Sometimes, for some women, separate is not only equal but better.
From the commentary: For it to turn its back on its own values, and on the voices of concern it is hearing from its friends in the American Jewish community, would be a very troubling and dangerous mistake.

To answer that question, you need to know what he knew or should have known at the moment he pulled that trigger.

This is what we know. He pulled the trigger. He did the act that caused death. Act and causation. Those two requirements are easy. It's mens rea — state of mind — that determines the difference between murder, manslaughter and an unfortunate accident.

First-degree murder is reserved for those who pull the trigger with the intent to kill. Premeditated and deliberate, intent at its worst. Capital murder. Second-degree is for the crazed lunatic. Extreme indifference to the value of human life. Reckless disregard in the extreme. Second degree. Voluntary manslaughter is the heat of passion. Provocation. The spurned lover. The bar fight that goes south. Involuntary manslaughter is Russian roulette. You should have known. The loaded gun.

Where does Alec Baldwin fit? What should he have known?


Obviously, he shouldn't be treated more strictly — or more leniently — because he is a celebrity. The standard isn't different for a reasonable celebrity. The question is whether a reasonable person in Baldwin's position would have pulled the trigger — or would he have checked first to make sure the gun wasn't loaded?

If he would have checked, if he was grossly negligent in not checking, then it's fair to charge him.

If it wasn't his job, if it wasn't up to him to check, if it wasn't reasonable to expect him to be the one to check, then it isn't fair to punish him for the awful result.

Who decides that?

In the first instance, of course, the prosecutor has to look at Baldwin's role not only as an actor but also as a producer and answer the question of just what his responsibility was. Is everyone on a set responsible for the handling of a weapon? Maybe guns should always be assumed to be loaded and ready to be fired at all times, but if that isn't the rule, and if everyone isn't bound by it and it isn't enforced against everyone, it certainly cannot be enforced retroactively, after the fact, however justified. As for producers, there are producers who are actually responsible for things and producers who have big titles.

More Commentary:
From the commentary: Increasing the deposit insurance cap and focusing on small business transaction accounts could stabilize midsize banks, reduce more deposit transfers out of those institutions, and shore up confidence in the banking system. If there is enough support in Congress, the Biden administration should submit a request for rapid approval.
From the commentary: Take springtime, season of quickening, season of equal parts shadow and light — the very equation at its astronomical heart, the vernal equinox marking the fleeting moment when earth’s axis aligns directly with the sun, and the planet is neatly halved with equal allotments of light, and the sun shines squarely on the equator.
From the commentary: During these times of increasing polarization, community conversations in libraries continue to show us there is so much more that connects us than divides us.
From the commentary: In the administration’s rush to appease the powerful oil industry, it has once again demonstrated that no matter which party is in power, it must kowtow to corporate interests who green-wash their way to record profits at the expense of our planet’s health
From the commentary: There is a way, meanwhile, politicians can put themselves in charge: They can buy the business.
From the commentary: Parents are witnessing the fallout from these political attacks on teachers as districts resort to substitutes and larger class sizes because they can’t hire enough staff.
From the commentary: The divisive rhetoric permeating the political landscape today is even filtering down to what used to be less partisan areas — like official White House and congressional accounts.
From the commentary: As bystanders in the political farce consuming much of the Republican race for president, we can give thanks that DeSantis has decided to battle against the sinister forces of wokeness and leave the important issues pretty much alone.
From the commentary: The fact that most Americans speak only English puts our country at an economic disadvantage and threatens national security if we cannot understand and analyze potential threats such as terrorism or contagions.
From the commentary: Further, Pence was perfectly willing to watch a multi-front coup attempt inflate on every side of him for months without making a sound, the same way he spent every hour of Trump’s decency-mocking presidency as its primary lickspittle.

There have been reports of safety violations on this particular set. Was Baldwin, as a producer, in a position where he knew or should have known about safety problems? Was he aware of issues relating in particular to gun safety? Did he take steps to deal with these problems? Should he have? Did others?

All of these questions have to be addressed before anyone can say whether it is right to charge Baldwin in the first instance, and all of these issues will have to be addressed and decided by a jury before it can conclude whether Baldwin bears any responsibility for the tragedy that followed. It's clear that whatever else happens, sets should be safer as a result of what Baldwin did. But deterrence is only one of the purposes of punishment and important as it is, deterring future accidents is not enough of a reason to make an example of Alec Baldwin. If he deserves to be punished, and that is a big IF, it will only be if a jury finds that he clearly should have known that the gun in his hands was just too dangerous for him to fire. The question is, should he have known that?


This Susan Estrich commentary is her opinion. She can be reached at


This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.


Opinion by Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich is an American lawyer, professor, author, political operative, and political commentator. She can be reached via
What To Read Next
Get Local