Death penalty for Alec Baldwin?

If unfamiliar with the Rust movie criminal case, see my earlier post on the first trial. As in the trial of Hannah Gutierrez, Alec Baldwin is facing a charge of Involuntary Manslaughter. The trial is supposed to start in July 2024.

No one suggests that Baldwin premeditatedly shot Halyna Hutchins. Nevertheless, I argue that he should stand trial on the charge of murder, with death penalty liability. Involuntary Manslaughter is unjustly mild.

The case law I cite is the biblical law of the goring ox. The text of this law is this (Ex. 21:28-30)

If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. 

But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death. 

If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him. 

Here, an owner of a brute beast is held responsible for the death as if it were done by himself, provided he had sufficient reason to know that the ox was dangerous. Though the dumb beast was the efficient cause of the death, a human is held liable if that condition is met. A fortiori, the responsibility for a death “caused by” an inert piece of metal — the loaded gun — should pass to the one who “owns it,” that is, who is responsible for the situation, provided he knew of the danger and ignored the danger.

The key facts that bring this case under this law are

  1. Not just once, but twice before the fatal incident, live rounds were accidentally discharged on the Rust set.
  2. These incidents were not in secret, but were well known to the personnel.
  3. No one did anything to remedy that situation
  4. Therefore, whoever had ultimate responsibility, “ownership” as it were, should be held liable.

Baldwin started the company that produced the movie: even though other investors got involved, he was the mover and shaker, and he was the one on the scene. Moreover, on the set, it is clear from the testimony given at Hannah’s trial that Baldwin was widely regarded as the boss-man to whom everyone else deferred, regardless of whatever titles other people might have held. He had the means, opportunity, and should have had the motive, to take measures to remedy the security breach that allowed live ammo to be injected into the prop room.

Now everyone will rush to be the first to shout, “we are not under biblical law, we are under statutory law given by our own legislatures.” But is there no common law argument?

King Alfred the Great (AD 890) incorporated the Decalogue and (more or less) the Book of the Covenant from Exodus into the preface of his law code, adapting a number of the precepts into his new promulgation of law. He was careful not to inject the Mosaic law unedited into the law code, but adapted it according to the amelioration believed to have been brought by the Apostles, as well as the need to honor Anglo-Saxon traditions as much as possible. F. Liebermann says (1908 lecture King Alfred and Mosaic Law, available on JSTOR), somewhat enigmatically,

Alfred translated Exodus about the goring ox, but in his English code he neither acquits the guiltless owner by the mere loss of the animal, nor does he condemn the negligent one to lose his life or wergild.

Note that incorporating biblical law into the common law even predates Alfred. Liebermann says,

Roman law, which did not come again under the notice of English jurists before the end of the eleventh century, would have appeared to Alfred, had he known it, far too technical and unsuited to the primitive stage of social development of his Anglo-Saxons. Mosaic law, however, had already been quoted by many Teutonic legal writers, not only in the canons of the Church, but also in secular laws and jurisprudence.

The biblical law evidently sets the death penalty as a kind of maximum, defining the context for what can be demanded as recompense by the aggrieved family. Halyna’s husband, on this principle, could demand a monetary compensation, and this would fulfill justice in lieu of the imposition of death.

The ransom of a man’s life are his riches: but the poor heareth not rebuke, Prov. 13:8

The second clause in this proverb evidently intends to point out, wisely, that the poor are less likely to fear a claim against their meagre property. In this case, however, Baldwin is fabulously wealthy, and a satisfactory recompense could probably be found.

It might be objected that the amount demanded for ransom, where the alternative is death, will always be the totality of the culprit’s wealth, according to intuition and ratified by the first clause of the Proverb cited. This need not be the case, however. A man might prefer to undergo the death penalty in order to leave an inheritance for his children. That possibility gives some negotiating room in fixing the amount demanded. The Hutchins might prefer to only get 10 million of Baldwin’s 80 million estate, rather than have him executed.

Probably, they can attempt to get a handsome compensation in our civil court system. However, the criminal context for setting death as the alternative puts the needed teeth into the argument, as well as satisfying public justice.

Having Baldwin sit in a jail for 18 months satisfies none of the claims of justice.