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Actor Brandon Lee was killed by a prop gun, years before the 'Rust' shooting death

Actor Brandon Lee died at age 28 while filming <em>The Crow</em> in 1993.
Alamy Stock Photo
Actor Brandon Lee died at age 28 while filming The Crow in 1993.

Actor Alec Baldwin is facing criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Rust cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in 2021. The incident is reminiscent of another on-set tragedy: the accidental shooting of actor Brandon Lee during filming of The Crow nearly three decades earlier.

Lee, who was the son of martial artist Bruce Lee, died after his co-star, actor Michael Massee, fired at him with a prop gun during filming on March 30, 1993, in Wilmington, North Carolina. Although the revolver was loaded with blanks, the gunpowder in the blank cartridge ignited, leading Massee to unknowingly fire a bullet fragment at Lee, who later died in surgery.

While Massee did not face any criminal charges, Lee's mother did successfully sue filmmakers for an undisclosed amount.

Decades later, a similar incident occurred when Baldwin fired a live round from a Colt .45-caliber pistol at Hutchins during filming for Rust. Baldwin, who maintains that he did not intend to fire at Hutchins, sued those involved in the handling and supplying of the prop gun and reached a settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Hutchins' husband, Matthew Hutchins.

On Thursday, prosecutors in Santa Fe, N.M., said Baldwin and another member of the Rust crew would face criminal charges for their involvement in the cinematographer's death.

Nancy Gertner, a trial lawyer, retired judge and senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, told NPR that filing criminal charges, in the deaths of both Lee and Hutchinson, is often up to the acting prosecutor's discretion. She called the decision to charge Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter both "unusual" and "difficult to prove."

"No one intended for this to happen," Gertner said. "So these kinds of charges are reserved for only the most extreme kinds of negligence, the most gross negligence, the largest deviation from what ordinary standards would be."

Gertner points to other members of the crew — including the film's armorer, who is also facing charges of involuntary manslaughter — and their handling and management of the gun before it came into Baldwin's possession.

"There are people along the continuum here who had direct responsibility for that gun and failed in that responsibility," she said. "One way of thinking of that is, in one sense, Baldwin is the least culpable on that line."

To prove Baldwin's culpability, Gertner said the prosecutors are theorizing that Baldwin held a greater responsibility in the death than originally thought. She also pointed to the roles that social media and "the unbelievable crush of publicity" might be playing in the prosecutors' decision.

"In other words, was the Lee case going to be on every single night on television, and on Twitter and on every major outlet?" Gertner said. "Does that put pressure on prosecutors in ways that it never has before? And that could be a difference."

Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford University, echoed the same sentiment that an involuntary manslaughter charge is often up to the prosecutor's discretion, calling the incident involving Baldwin "very factually messy."

"I don't think we know enough yet about the forensics of the shooting, at least compared to what was settled in the Brandon Lee case," he said. "And some possible outcomes from further investigation or actual trial testimony, in the Baldwin case, might more clearly differentiate the cases."

Weisberg pointed to labor issues surrounding the production company behind Rust. The Los Angeles Times reported that a half-dozen crew members reportedly walked off the set hours before the shooting incident, and others told the news outlet that gun safety protocols weren't being followed while filming.

"A jury could infer, 'Well, on that basis, he should have thought twice, or three times, about the gun,'" Weisberg said. "Even if there hadn't been incidents on that set about that particular gun, but rather, you should have done an inference: 'We're not running the set very well. And I better really be careful here.'"

The incident that led to Lee's death spurred the need for better protocols when using prop guns on set. Following her brother's death, martial artist Shannon Lee told Agence France-Presse in 2021 that mandatory gun safety training should be required for actors.

"It shouldn't happen again," Lee told the news agency.

Gertner also said that previous reports of equipment being irresponsibly handled on set could add to Baldwin's culpability.

"So that too could have distinguished this case from the Lee case," she said. "If someone tells you that you speed all the time and you continue to speed, that makes you much more culpable."

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Giulia Heyward
Giulia Heyward is a weekend reporter for Digital News, based out of New York. She previously covered education and other national news as a reporting fellow at The New York Times and as the national education reporter at Capital B News. She interned for POLITICO, where she covered criminal justice reform in Florida, and CNN, as a writer for the trends & culture team. Her work has also been published in The Atlantic, HuffPost and The New Republic.