Manslaughter & Criminal Negligence: A Canadian Lens on the “Rust” Set Shooting

Written on behalf of Barrison Law
Handgun representing the "Rust" set shooting trial. Explaining the difference between manslaughter and criminal negligence

In January, actor Alec Baldwin was indicted on an involuntary manslaughter charge by a New Mexico grand jury for the 2021 shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Hutchins died after a prop gun wielded by Baldwin went off on the set of the movie “Rust”. The movie’s director, Joel Souza, was also wounded during the incident. Since the incident, Baldwin has denied pulling the gun’s trigger. His on-set armourer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter on March 6, 2024, and is awaiting sentencing.

Canadian criminal law similarly provides for charges of manslaughter arising in circumstances involving an unintentional death. However, it does so without designating a specific charge of “involuntary manslaughter”, as found under New Mexico’s criminal statute.

“Rust” Charges: Death Caused by Negligence or Disregard for Safety

Alec Baldwin’s criminal charge stems from section 30-2-3 of New Mexico’s criminal code, which sets out a specific offence of involuntary manslaughter as a fourth-degree felony, carrying a sentence of 18 months in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. The grand jury indictment from January 2024 alleges Baldwin caused Halyna Hutchins’ death by negligence or a “total disregard or indifference” for her safety.

A special prosecutor dismissed Baldwin’s previous involuntary manslaughter charges in April 2023, after the prosecutor was informed the gun may have malfunctioned after being improperly modified. However, once ballistics experts provided evidence of the gun’s trigger being pulled by Baldwin, the charges were reinstated and brought before a grand jury. His trial is scheduled to begin in July 2024.

Culpable Homicide Under the Criminal Code of Canada

Under section 222 of Canada’s Criminal Code, there are three forms of “culpable homicide” (i.e. causing the death of a person in a manner that attracts criminal consequences): murder, manslaughter, and infanticide. The Criminal Code states a person commits culpable homicide when they cause the death of a human being:

  1. By means of an unlawful act;
  2. By criminal negligence;
  3. By causing that human being, by threats or fear of violence or by deception, to do anything that causes his death; or
  4. By wilfully frightening that human being, in the case of a child or sick person.

“Involuntary Manslaughter” in Canada

Unlike New Mexico’s criminal statute, the Criminal Code of Canada does not explicitly define “involuntary manslaughter”. However, similar legal requirements are contained within the Criminal Code provisions relating to manslaughter.

In Canada, involuntary manslaughter typically occurs in one of two ways (represented by the first two types of culpable homicide above): by an unlawful act or by criminal negligence.

Unlawful Act Manslaughter

The leading Canadian case on unlawful act manslaughter is the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1993 decision in R. v. Creighton. The accused in Creighton was charged with manslaughter after injecting cocaine into the deceased’s forearm and refusing to call for emergency assistance when she stopped breathing from cardiac arrest.

The Supreme Court explained that for an accused to be found guilty of unlawful act manslaughter, in carrying out the unlawful act, there must have been an objectively foreseeable risk of bodily harm that “is neither trivial or transitory”. The risk of death does not need to have been foreseeable.

Manslaughter Caused by Criminal Negligence

The elements of criminal negligence are set out in section 219 of the Criminal Code, which states:

219 (1) Every one is criminally negligent who

  1. in doing anything, or
  2. in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do,

shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.

(2) For the purposes of this section, duty means a duty imposed by law.

Under section 220 of the Criminal Code, when a person causes another person’s death by criminal negligence and a firearm is involved in the commission of the offence, the person is liable to a minimum of four years imprisonment, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Deterrence & Denunciation in Accidental Gun Death Sentences

An example of an accidental gun death and criminal negligence charges in Canada is the Supreme Court’s decision of R. v. Morrisey from 2000. The accused was drinking and using prescription drugs with a friend at a camp in the woods and cut off the barrel of a rifle. After driving his friend’s father home, the accused returned to the camp and found his friend sleeping on a top bunk in a cabin. While holding the rifle, the accused climbed onto the lower bunk to shake his friend awake. The gun discharged when the accused lost his footing and fell, fatally shooting his friend in the head.

The accused pled guilty to criminal negligence causing death. At his initial trial, the trial judge sentenced him to two years in prison after finding the four-year minimum sentence under section 220(a) violated the accused’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically, section 12, the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

The Supreme Court adjusted the sentence to include the four-year minimum imprisonment term. The Court found the minimum did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, stating:

Extra vigilance is necessary with guns, and while society would expect people to take precautions on their own, unfortunately people do not always do so. Consequently, Parliament has sent an extra message to such people: failure to be careful will attract severe criminal penalties. The sentence represents society’s denunciation, having regard to the gravity of the crime; it provides retributive justice to the family of the victim and the community in general; and it serves a general deterrent function to prevent others from acting so recklessly in the future.

Barrison Law: Providing Skilled Representation in Manslaughter Cases Across Durham Region

Manslaughter cases can be highly complex and fact-specific. Having an experienced criminal defence lawyer review your circumstances and provide trustworthy, robust legal advice is critical to mounting an effective defence. The talented criminal defence lawyers at Barrison Law understand manslaughter cases rarely have one side of the story. We thoroughly analyze all evidence involved and build the most vigorous defence possible in each case. When it is in your best interest, we negotiate with the Crown to find an optimal result. However, we are no strangers to the courtroom and are persuasive advocates at trial. Our firm also provides top-tier representation against weapons charges, including possession offences.

Based in Oshawa, Barrison Law serves clients across the Durham Region, including Whitby, Ajax, and Pickering, as well as the surrounding communities, including Cobourg, Peterborough, and Lindsay. We have a 24-hour call service to ensure clients have access to justice at all times and offer a free, confidential consultation for prospective clients. To discuss your case with a member of our knowledgeable team, call 905-404-1947 or reach out to us online.