A judge on Monday blocked the Santa Fe district attorney from appointing a new prosecutor in the “Rust” case, in another setback for the prosecution.
Mary Carmack-Altwies, the elected D.A., said at a hearing Monday that the office is in “dire straits” due to a manpower shortage, and needs an outside lawyer to help prosecute Alec Baldwin and armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed for the October 2021 death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
But Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer ruled that the D.A. could not appoint a “special prosecutor” unless the D.A.’s office plans to recuse itself entirely from the case.
“You cannot use it unless you’re not going to prosecute,” the judge said.
Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed were charged with involuntary manslaughter in January. Since then, the case has faced a series of setbacks. The D.A.’s office was forced to drop a five-year gun enhancement after learning that the law did not apply at the time of the “Rust” accident.
Andrea Reeb, the first special prosecutor, was forced to withdraw from the case after Baldwin argued she could not simultaneously serve as a prosecutor and a state representative. Reeb, a Republican, also faced allegations that she was pursuing the case for political gain.
The D.A.’s office plans to conduct a two-week preliminary hearing in the case, beginning on May 3. Carmack-Altwies said her office is short-staffed, and will have only 15 of its 24 prosecutor positions filled by the end of April. She has also said that D.A.’s across New Mexico are finding it hard to recruit and retain qualified candidates.
The state legislature has earmarked $360,000 in special funding for the “Rust” case, which the D.A. requested to pay for the outside lawyer and forensics experts.
“All of the money in the world doesn’t help prosecute a case if we cannot find the bodies to fulfill the roles in our office to prosecute both this case and every other case in our district,” Carmack-Altwies said at the hearing on Monday.
Carmack-Altwies has also noted that a new prosecutor would struggle to handle the case alone, given the volume of material involved and the fact that the preliminary hearing is just five weeks away.
Baldwin did not object to the appointment of a new special prosecutor. But Jason Bowles, who represents Gutierrez Reed, argued that the D.A. could not use the special prosecutor law simply to augment its staff for a high-profile case.
The judge agreed.
But in denying the D.A.’s request to appoint a special prosecutor, she also referred the D.A. to another statute that does appear to allow the D.A. to hire a contract attorney.
Carmack-Altwies said she had not sought to invoke that statute because it appeared to refer only to hiring attorneys who work for the state Attorney General’s office.
Sommer suggested, however, that she might allow the D.A. to use it to hire a private attorney. She asked for further briefing on that issue.