Alec Baldwin Indicted on Involuntary Manslaughter– What it means and what is the difference between Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter
Recently, a New Mexico grand jury indicted Alec Baldwin on Involuntary Manslaughter charges in a 2021 fatal shooting during a rehearsal on a movie set. The case will now go to trial unless Baldwin enters into a plea agreement with the prosecution. At this point, according to Baldwin’s criminal defense lawyer, Baldwin will fight these charges.
You may recall that Baldwin was the lead actor and a co-producer on the movie “Rust.” During the movie production, Baldwin pointed a gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. The gun went off and killed her and wounded director Joel Souza.
Murder vs. Manslaughter
Similar to New Mexico law, what separates murder from manslaughter in Pennsylvania and New Jersey is malice. Manslaughter is the intentional killing without lawful justification where the actor kills another due to a sudden and/or intense passion resulting from some serious provocation.
Voluntary manslaughter is a felony of the 1st degree in Pennsylvania and a crime of the 2nd degree in New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, the maximum sentence for a felony of the 1st degree is 20 years of state incarceration while the maximum sentence for a 2nd degree crime in New Jersey is 10 years. (See 2C: 11-4 – New Jersey). Aggravated manslaughter is a crime of the 1st degree in New Jersey.
Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a person dies as the result of an unlawful act of another who commits it in a reckless or grossly negligent manner or does a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner. It is often not graded as a felony crime (Pennsylvania-Misdemeanor) but in in New Mexico, it is a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.
The Burden of Proof to Indict at a Grand Jury
An indictment isn’t a finding of guilt, but rather that enough evidence exists for a person to stand trial on a charge, otherwise known as an “indictable crime.”
There is a Prima Facie burden of proof at a grand jury which is the same evidentiary standard judges use to issue search warrants.
If the grand jury does not find that there is sufficient evidence (aka “No Bill”), it may find that enough evidence exists to charge a person with a less serious offense (disorderly or petty disorderly) and remand the case to municipal court which is a court of limited jurisdiction.
What are the obligations of a Prosecutor before a Grand Jury?
The State, through the prosecutor, isn’t required to even inform the grand jury that the accused didn’t have a motive for committing the crime for which the state seeks the indictment. There is also no obligation for the prosecution to present evidence which could impeach the credibility of the witness testifying before the grand jury (i.e., the witness’s prior criminal history).
The prosecution is only required to present “clearly exculpatory evidence” such as physical evidence of unquestioning reliability which demonstrates that the accused didn’t commit the alleged crime. The standard for “clearly exculpatory” evidence is high, and the New Jersey Constitution allows trial courts to act with substantial caution before concluding that the prosecution’s decision to not present this evidence amounted to an error which will allow them to dismiss the indictment entirely.
Motion to Dismiss the Indictment for Lack of Prima Evidence
Once a grand jury indicts, the only recourse for an accused individual such as Alec Baldwin is for his attorney to consider a motion to dismiss the indictment based on insufficient evidence to establish a Prima Facia case against the accused. Keep in mind however that a criminal trial court will only dismiss an indictment only where the grand jury’s decision was based on “manifestly deficient or defective” grounds. This is a very high evidentiary standard to overcome for the defense and, in most situations, a trial court won’t overturn the decision of a grand jury.
While an accused can appeal a trial court’s decision denying a motion to dismiss to an appellate court, an appeals court will find in most cases that it is within the discretion of the trial court to make this determination. Remember that a grand jury doesn’t determine guilt, but only that a clearly innocent person does not face prosecution because of some over-zealous prosecutor, partisanship, or some personal vendetta.
Pre-Indictment Plea Agreements
Prior to an indictment the prosecutor and defense attorney will enter into plea negotiations where the prosecutor typically offers the defendant a plea agreement which usually features a reduced term of incarceration or perhaps probation in exchange for a plea. In addition, some agreements downgrade or dismiss charges.
Prior to entering into an agreement, the defense attorney will review the document with the accused. He or she must sign a statement certifying that he or she understands the plea and is entering into the agreement voluntarily without pressure from the prosecutor or his own defense attorney. Keep in mind, the judge isn’t obligated to accept the plea agreement and can order the defense and prosecution to re-negotiate the matter or schedule a trial.
Indictment and Discovery
If the accused is indicted, he or she must appear for an arraignment, which is a formal notification of the charges against him or her. The arraignment typically occurs within 14 days of the indictment and it is during this time when discovery or evidence is made available to defense counsel. Following review of that discovery the attorney may advise his client to consider the Pre-Trial Intervention Program (PTI), or carry on further plea negotiations.
Keep in mind that judges usually give the defense the option to continue plea negotiations and will schedule an additional status conference (s) to determine a possible plea. Plea negotiations can’t continue indefinitely, and a judge will set a “plea cut-off date” where no further plea negotiations can occur.
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