Mary Carmack-Altwies, the Santa Fe-area district attorney, doesn’t mind sticking her chin out.
She did it in the toppling-of-the-Plaza-obelisk case two years ago, and she did it once again last week with the decision to charge Alec Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter in the Rust disaster.
Notice I wrote chin. When it comes to Rust, Carmack-Altwies is in no way exposing her neck.
Charging Baldwin may have heads spinning in Hollywood or Manhattan, but in Santa Fe, where the movie industry and its stars are often a coded yellow sign pointing trucks thataway, it’s not like she’s putting the prosecutorial hammer to your next-door neighbor or cousin Sal.
Or worse, losing a case involving the death of your next-door neighbor or cousin Sal.
This was the safe move, because in the end, when a DA stands for reelection — and I’m assuming Carmack-Altwies will want to run again, she seems to like the job — he or she usually wins or loses based on how effective they’re perceived at prosecuting the crime nearby.
I know. That sounds like I don’t care about Halyna Hutchins, the shooting victim on the Rust set. To be clear: Her death is tragic, an indictment on the industry, should send shudders through movie sets from here to Hollywood.
But neither Hutchins nor Baldwin lived here.
The sad fact is, there have been and will be many more deaths — shooting, stabbing, vehicular — in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties between now and 2024, the next electoral cycle. How those crimes and others turn out, I’m betting, will provide a truer picture of Carmack-Altwies’ performance in office, and whether voters will keep her in the DA’s chair.
Clearly, a potential Baldwin trial is interesting and compelling: the actor’s presumably high-dollar defense team against the talents of Carmack-Altwies and special prosecutor Andrea Reeb, who will handle the prosecution. The posturing is already in play.
Get a load of Luke Nikas, Baldwin’s attorney:
“He [Baldwin] relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds,” Nikas said Thursday. “We will fight these charges, and we will win.”
Easy to say. Maybe not so easy to do.
Carmack-Altwies and Reeb will be the home team in any trial, particularly if the venue does not change. And Reeb is a formidable adversary. Based in Clovis, she won a conviction in 2021 in the second trial of former Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan, accused of aiding a felon and intimidating a witness.
That was no easy feat — particularly when you consider the first go-round ended in a mistrial when a jury couldn’t come to an agreement amid, shall we say, a circus-like atmosphere at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla.
Reeb, who left the DA’s office in Clovis and now is a state legislator, didn’t blink in the retrial, which played out in Santa Fe. And she won.
The prospect of a movie star’s legal showdown, a cable TV dream, is juicy. Since the shooting, Baldwin has proclaimed his regret about the tragedy, maintaining he did not pull the trigger on the pistol that discharged the fatal shot. I’m no lawyer, but this whole thing might come down to the FBI crime lab, and a jury’s ability to connect with one set of attorneys or the other.
Winning convictions in the case likely will make prosecutors stars in the local legal community and probably around town. But losing the case won’t be nearly as damaging as you think, particularly if the trials don’t bump into 2024 and a Democratic Party primary where, if history serves, there’s always a hungry, would-be district attorney.
In truth, Carmack-Altwies’ decision to divert the obelisk-toppling defendants into a pre-prosecution probation program bothered many. In some ways, it was far more risky than charging Baldwin, or even losing the case. But would the obelisk controversy put her at risk for reelection? I doubt it. In today’s politics, it’s usually about the most recent thing. The obelisk happened in 2020.
Determining the worth of any elected official, but particularly a district attorney, shouldn’t be based on one case. It’s about daily efficiency, consistency, competence. It’s about how DWI is prosecuted. It’s about whether deadlines are being met. It’s about ably prosecuting criminals in an area where — I think we can all agree on this — crime seems closer to home, now more than ever.
Intentionally or not, Carmack-Altwies stuck her chin out again during her carefully choreographed media rounds following the announcement she would charge Baldwin and Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed.
“[Reeb and I are] co-counsel, but obviously I’m the district attorney, so the buck stops with me,” Carmack-Altwies told The New Mexican‘s Phaedra Haywood.
But it won’t stop on Rust.