On the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2021, Mary Carmack-Altwies, the district attorney for New Mexico’s First Judicial District, was driving along a lonely stretch of the mountain highway connecting Santa Fe and Taos when her cell service abruptly returned and her phone started pinging — message after message. She pulled over to the side of the road and began scrolling: Alec Baldwin had accidentally shot two people on a movie set in her jurisdiction. Carmack-Altwies had planned to spend the next couple of days alone in the mountains before celebrating her 43rd birthday with her wife, a retired investigator for the state, and their two children. Clearly that was not going to happen.

The shooting occurred at 1:46 p.m. that day at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, a family-owned Old West movie set about 20 miles southeast of Santa Fe that had been rented out by “Rust,” an independent film that Baldwin was both starring in and producing. The bullet he inadvertently fired passed through the upper body of the film’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and lodged near the spine of Joel Souza, the director. Souza was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Santa Fe; Hutchins was airlifted to a trauma center in Albuquerque and died a short time later.

Carmack-Altwies was nearing the end of her first year in office. She had been an assistant district attorney specializing in violent crimes when her boss made a bid for Congress. She ran to succeed him — her first foray into electoral politics — and won easily, inheriting a jurisdiction that covers three counties: Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe. She’s a Democrat in a Democratic district, though the label connotes something very different in New Mexico, a rural hunting state whose voters tend to place a high value on the Second Amendment, than it does in, say, New York or California.

Carmack-Altwies turned around and went back to her office in Santa Fe, where she spent most of the night on the phone with the local police, trying to make sure that the movie set, now a potential crime scene, was properly secured. In the days that followed, reporters from all over the world descended on Santa Fe. Carmack-Altwies held her first news conference about the incident six days later outside the Sheriff’s Department. She was asked if she intended to prosecute anyone. “I do not make rash decisions, and I do not rush to judgment,” she said. “All options are on the table at this point.”

Over the next several weeks, Carmack-Altwies began considering those options. In many legal circles, especially on the two coasts, there was an assumption that Baldwin did not commit a crime. It was a terrible tragedy, but there was no indication of any intent to do harm. There would be plenty of civil suits against both him and Rust Movie Productions — in fact, they had already begun. But that didn’t have to mean that there wasn’t at least the potential for criminal liability, too.

Troubling details soon started to emerge about the film’s set. There were two accidental firings of blank rounds before the accidental discharge that killed Hutchins, and several members of the camera crew had resigned the night before the incident, citing, among other things, safety concerns. The first assistant director, who is in charge of safety on a film set, had been fired from another movie two years earlier after an accidental gun discharge. The armorer, who maintains control of all of the film’s firearms — and there were a lot, as this was a western — was just 24 years old; she’d done the job only once before.

While the Sheriff’s Department was continuing its investigation and Carmack-Altwies was considering her options, Baldwin was sinking into despair. He was grieving over having accidentally taken a young woman’s life and coming to terms with the cascading collateral damage to his own life. He was losing jobs, and to make matters worse, in early November, the lawyers representing Hutchins’s widower, Matthew — now the single parent of a 9-year-old boy — sent him a “preservation of evidence” letter, effectively putting him on notice that he was going to be party to a lawsuit.

But Baldwin was also worried about his criminal exposure as a producer of the film and the actor holding the gun that killed Hutchins. He could see the narrative taking shape that “Rust” was a rushed, seat-of-the-pants production and that it was somehow his fault that he didn’t know there was a live round in his revolver. In a series of plaintive phone calls and text messages with the detective in charge of the investigation that were released months later by the police, Baldwin sought to explain that all movies try to keep to a tight schedule — “Every movie seeks to save money, Steven Spielberg seeks to save money, Tom Cruise seeks to save money” — and that actors are not expected to check their guns for live ammunition. At the same time, his lawyers were fighting the search warrant to turn over his cellphone.

In December, Baldwin appeared in an interview with George Stephanopoulos that would go a long way toward sealing his legal fate. He no doubt believed that he was simply using a time-honored Hollywood tool — the prime-time celebrity sit-down — to set the narrative and clear his name. And he knew Stephanopoulos socially. But it turned out to be a costly miscalculation. Baldwin walked through the events leading up to the shooting, explaining that when he was handed the revolver, someone yelled, “Cold gun,” indicating, Baldwin said, that there were no charges in the gun. He went on to describe how Hutchins guided the gun in her direction in order to get the right camera angle. Stephanopoulos remarked that the script didn’t call for the trigger to be pulled. “Well, the trigger wasn’t pulled,” Baldwin said. “I didn’t pull the trigger.”

Carmack-Altwies was watching the show at home in Santa Fe, her fury rising. Here was a suspect in an ongoing criminal investigation seeking to exonerate himself on national television. To her, Baldwin seemed unrepentant, entitled and maybe even dishonest. He was not under oath and she had no proof, but she believed that he was lying about not having pulled the trigger. “This guy, how dare he,” she recalls thinking. “There’s a dead person because of your actions.” As soon as the interview ended, she called her deputy, Jennifer Padgett Macias. “Did he just waltz himself into charges?” she asked.

As it happens, an accidental shooting sets the plot of “Rust” in motion: A 13-year-old boy misses his intended target and inadvertently kills a man, forcing his grandfather, the aging outlaw Harland Rust — Baldwin’s character — out of exile to rescue him from the law. “This is the West, sir,” goes the famous line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the classic John Ford western. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On the Bonanza Creek Ranch, near what was once a mining town, legend became fact: The fictional story of an accidental shooting became the actual story of an accidental shooting, and an aging movie star is now being prosecuted for it. The myths of America’s past have given way to the realities of its present.

On the day of the incident, the camera crew’s walkout had delayed the start of shooting, putting the production behind schedule, but the cast and crew were plowing ahead. They had just finished lunch and were blocking out a single shot, the lead-in to a gunfight, inside a wooden church. At this point in the movie, Baldwin’s character has been badly wounded and appears to be cornered. But the two marshals pursuing him are distracted by a sound outside the church, which gives him an opening to draw his gun.

Baldwin and Souza disagreed about the scene. Souza wanted Baldwin to slowly draw his gun to build dramatic tension. In his vision, the entire shot would be a close-up of the revolver emerging slowly from Harland Rust’s leather shoulder holster; it would never be pointed at anyone. Baldwin thought it would make more sense for his character to simply stand up and start blazing. They had still not resolved the disagreement when either the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, or the assistant director, David Halls — this remains in dispute — handed Baldwin the revolver. It contained five dummy rounds, which look the same as live rounds but contain no charge, and a single live round.

When the gun went off and Hutchins dropped to the floor, Baldwin assumed that she’d fainted. His next thought was that she’d been hit by some sort of projectile that had gotten lodged in the barrel. Or was it a heart attack? Souza had also slumped down and was screaming in pain. Baldwin and most of the others were quickly hustled out of the church as the set medic and a few crew members tended to Hutchins and Souza. It wasn’t until the helicopter landed on the set that Baldwin began to contemplate the possibility that his gun had contained a live round. And it wasn’t until his interview with the police later that afternoon at the Sheriff’s Department that he learned that that live round killed Halyna Hutchins.

It’s not surprising that Baldwin was drawn to “Rust,” and in particular to the character of Harland Rust. In some ways, Baldwin is a contemporary version of the archetypal western hero: the combustible outlaw living by his own code of honor. Baldwin had already lived through more than his share of drama before “Rust.” He had once been a leading man and a Hollywood bad boy — starring in the 1990 blockbuster “The Hunt for Red October” and famously slapping a camera away from a photographer — until a bitter public divorce and custody battle with the actress Kim Basinger in the early 2000s. He reinvented himself as a member of New York City’s liberal intelligentsia — a classical music buff with his own public-radio show, a regular at black-tie benefits and a political activist, donating generously to Democratic causes and campaigning with Democratic candidates, even flirting with running for office himself. His performance as Jack Donaghy on NBC’s “30 Rock” demonstrated a comedic depth and self-awareness that endeared him to a new, younger audience. His impersonations of Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live” cemented his persona as a darling of the left and a bête noire of the right, a recurring subject of mockery in The New York Post and on Fox News. Sean Hannity, with whom he has been feuding for years, has called him a “professional Trump hater” and a “condescending Hollywood jackass.”

Baldwin may not have a bounty on his head, but he has long felt under siege from his more contemporary tormentors — the tabloid media and political conservatives — and it has never been easy for him to let things go. His “Rust” journey has been a protracted, higher-stakes form of a familiar Baldwin ritual: He does or says something controversial; then, in an attempt to be understood, he doubles down on whatever he said or did, inviting further scrutiny; finally, feeling victimized and aggrieved, he vows to stop engaging with the media. By the time I started working on this article in early April, Baldwin’s lawyers had persuaded him to stop talking to reporters about “Rust.” This account is based on more than 30 other interviews conducted in New York and Santa Fe, in addition to public court filings, police records and videos, as well as documents obtained under New Mexico’s freedom-of-information act.

In 2019, when he first started working with Souza on “Rust,” Baldwin was married to a yoga instructor and social media influencer, Hilaria. They already had four young children, with three still to come. Now in his 60s, he was reproducing the sort of large Irish Catholic family he had grown up in on Long Island. He was no longer the in-demand box-office draw that he’d once been, and shooting movies was hard on his young and growing family. But “Rust” spoke to him. It was a small independent film with a modest $7.4 million budget, and the plan was to shoot it in just four weeks. He agreed to play the lead and also signed on as a producer, attaching his production company, El Dorado Pictures, to the project. He was to be paid $250,000 for his combined role, plus a percentage of the profits once the movie was sold to a distributor and eventually released. Out of his earnings, he told investigators, he had carved out $50,000 to augment the pay for the actress playing the most prominent female character, who was budgeted to make just $2,100 for a week of work. They had shot close to half of the film when tragedy struck.

Nearly 30 years before “Rust,” an eerily similar incident unfolded on the North Carolina set of “The Crow,” killing Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon. No criminal charges were filed, and the actor who pulled the trigger, Michael Massee, was treated by the media as a victim himself. But these are very different times. And this was Alec Baldwin. The paparazzi swarmed, and Baldwin’s political enemies pounced. Trump suggested in a talk-radio interview that the shooting of Hutchins might not have been an accident: “In my opinion, he had something to do with it.” Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, was selling T-shirts on his website: “Guns don’t kill people. Alec Baldwin kills people.”

Live rounds are generally prohibited on movie sets, and Baldwin was consumed by the question of how they got onto the set of “Rust.” The armorer’s lawyer suggested on “Good Morning America” that it could have been sabotage. Baldwin later texted Hutchins’s widower about the possibility. “Important for you to keep in mind: The Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office may lack both the skill and the will to properly investigate the sabotage angle,” he wrote. “I’m told their agenda is to write it off as an accident and throw it to the civil courts.”

District attorneys are elected officials, and charging decisions don’t occur in a vacuum. They are specific to a time and a place, and New Mexico is a place with a fraught relationship with outsiders. The state’s official nickname is the Land of Enchantment, an allusion to its beguiling landscape of mountains, deserts, mesas and plains. But among some Santa Fe locals, its unofficial nickname is the Land of Resentment, an allusion to the town’s feelings toward its long history of occupation and exploitation dating back to the Spanish conquistadors of the late 1600s.

Santa Fe’s latest wave of invaders — in addition to tourists and wealthy transplants — are movie productions, and the casts and crews of westerns in particular. The film industry has exploded in New Mexico in recent years, thanks as much to an aggressive program of tax credits as to its enchanting landscape. New Mexico is a poor state, without a single Fortune 500 company, and the idea was that movies could help fill the void. Filmmakers now spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year in New Mexico, but the conspicuous presence of their casts and crews has been complicated. “A lot of productions come into town,” John Day, a defense lawyer in Santa Fe, told me, “go to the high-end vintage store, buy all of the cowboy clothes and shoot rounds into the sagebrush. Suddenly you’re out here running around in cowboy boots and Levis. But in the eyes of local people, you’re an invader. You don’t understand the local culture.” That local culture includes gun culture, which means treating firearms with respect and care.

The more Carmack-Altwies learned about the set of “Rust,” the more convinced she was that this respect and care was absent from it. Between what she was hearing from the Sheriff’s Department and what she was reading in the proliferating number of civil suits, there was good reason to believe that the production had not followed standard industry practices for handling firearms on movie sets. According to guidelines endorsed by SAG-AFTRA, a designated crew member “shall advise the performer of the type of blank or dummy round being used and afford the performer, cast and crew the supervised opportunity to verify the same.” It appeared that neither of those things had happened in the moments before the shooting.

Beyond the set that Baldwin nominally oversaw as one of the movie’s producers, there were Baldwin’s own actions that day. As Carmack-Altwies saw it, he had violated the common-sense rules universally shared by people who regularly handle real guns in real life: Never point one, loaded or unloaded, at anyone unless you intend to shoot them. And if you are holding one, you are responsible for whatever comes out of the barrel.

Carmack-Altwies works out of a low-slung, dimly lit stucco building across a small plaza from the modern state courthouse in Santa Fe. The office was in shambles when she was elected in 2020; one murder defendant had recently been allowed to go free because the office had missed so many deadlines in the case. She had since embarked on an ambitious rebuilding program, hiring new lawyers from around the state and driving up prosecution and conviction rates. By the summer of 2022, Carmack-Altwies was pretty certain that she would soon be adding “Rust” to the tally, invoking New Mexico’s notably vague involuntary-manslaughter statute, which leaves prosecutors plenty of room to define the law as they see fit.

Her staff was small, with an annual budget of $8.2 million and 27 attorneys, only a handful of whom had experience with homicides. Carmack-Altwies knew that she would need reinforcements to do battle with Baldwin’s New York lawyers — additional money from the state and a more seasoned special prosecutor to help her handle the case. Earlier in her tenure, she appointed a former district attorney from New Mexico’s Ninth Judicial District, Andrea Reeb, to prosecute the sheriff of Rio Arriba County, James Lujan. Reeb had done an exemplary job, sending him to prison for harboring a felon and intimidating a witness. In June, Carmack-Altwies quietly reconnected with her to gauge her interest in joining her as a special prosecutor on the “Rust” case.

Reeb leaped at the opportunity. She was now running for the State House of Representatives as a Republican from New Mexico’s 64th District, a rural, conservative region abutting the western border of Texas. Nothing was official yet, so Reeb assured Carmack-Altwies that she would not tell the press about her prospective appointment. “At some point though,” she wrote in an email, later released under the state’s freedom-of-information act, “I’d at least like to get out there that I am assisting you … as it might help in my campaign lol.” (Reeb says that she was just joking and that she has never prosecuted anyone to advance her political career.)

Carmack-Altwies reassured her: “I am intending to either introduce you or send it in a press release when we get the investigation!”

While Carmack-Altwies was laying the groundwork for her “Rust” cases, Baldwin was continuing to plead his case to the public, folding his potential prosecution into his enemies’ long-running crusade against him. “This was something that was to the delight of people who hate my guts politically,” he told Chris Cuomo for his podcast during the summer of 2022. “As I’ve said in the past, if George Bush’s mother — if Barbara Bush — fell through the ice on a pond and I waded out into the pond and saved her life, they’d say I groped her sexually when I was pulling her out.”

Baldwin never failed to express deep sympathy for Matthew Hutchins and his son, and his grief was no doubt heartfelt. But he was also coming to see himself as a victim, one of cultural and political resentment. And he was becoming resentful too. In an interview with CNN around the same time, he explicitly blamed the armorer and the assistant director for Hutchins’s death. “There are two people who didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Baldwin said. “I’m not sitting there saying I want them to, you know, go to prison or I want their lives to be hell. I don’t want that. But I want everybody to know that those are the two people that are responsible for what happened.”

Between his lost jobs, mounting legal bills and growing brood of young dependents, Baldwin’s financial future was becoming uncertain. He began shifting around some of his real estate assets. He bought a 55-acre farm in southern Vermont for $1.75 million, sold his lake house in upstate New York for $530,000 and put his 10-acre estate in the Hamptons on the market for $29 million.

For its part, the prosecution was finding more reasons to believe that the set of “Rust” had been unsafe and that Baldwin had been careless with the gun. New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau completed its own investigation into the production and concluded that it had “demonstrated plain indifference to the hazards associated with firearms.” And a ballistics report conducted by the F.B.I. at Quantico determined that the gun that had killed Hutchins — an Italian-made replica of a 19th-century Colt revolver — could not have discharged without someone pulling the trigger.

The plan was to get everyone — the armorer, the assistant director and Baldwin — to take plea deals, admitting guilt and avoiding jail time. But it didn’t work out that way. David Halls, the assistant director, agreed to plead guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon in exchange for six months of probation. But things went awry with the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed.

She was in many ways the most culpable. She loaded the gun that killed Hutchins, and she was in charge of maintaining the set’s firearms. At the same time, though, she was young, inexperienced and stretched thin. She was serving not only as the armorer for “Rust”; she was also the assistant to the prop master, which was typically a distinct job. And she was to be paid a total of just $7,913 for four weeks of work. Carmack-Altwies and Reeb wanted her to plead guilty to a felony charge — involuntary manslaughter — in exchange for avoiding jail time, retaining her gun rights and eventually having her record erased. But Gutierrez-Reed decided to take her chances at trial.

Without the leverage of Gutierrez-Reed’s testimony as a cooperating witness, Carmack-Altwies and Reeb figured that Baldwin, who had steadfastly insisted on his innocence since the incident, would never agree to a plea deal. On Jan. 19, 2023, they held a news conference outside the state courthouse in Santa Fe to announce their intention to charge him and Gutierrez-Reed with involuntary manslaughter. Afterward, they did a slew of national media interviews across the political spectrum. “An actor does not get a free pass just because they are an actor,” Carmack-Altwies told CNN. “We are saying here in New Mexico that everyone is equal under the law.”

Then, almost as soon as the case finally came together, it started to fall apart. In their zeal, Carmack-Altwies and Reeb had made some mistakes, leaving themselves open to various legal challenges. Baldwin’s lawyers took full advantage, bombarding the court with motions. Carmack-Altwies and Reeb had invoked a special “firearm enhancement” statute that allows for a longer prison sentence — as long as five years — when the defendant in a noncapital felony case brandishes a firearm during the commission of a crime. But they had used the current version of the statute, which had been revised since the incident. At the time of Hutchins’s shooting, the statute required that the person holding the firearm possess “intent” to harm the victim, which obviously was not the case with Baldwin. Baldwin’s lawyers also moved to have Reeb removed from the case; she had by now been elected to the State House of Representatives, and they argued that acting as a special prosecutor while also serving in the state government violated the separation of powers required by the New Mexico Constitution. They challenged Carmack-Altwies’s role in the case too, arguing that she could not serve as co-counsel with an independent special prosecutor.

Carmack-Altwies withdrew the firearm-enhancement charge and reluctantly asked Reeb to step down. When a state judge ruled that she could either prosecute the case herself or appoint a new special prosecutor, she, too, stepped down. Leading the case now would be a friend and former colleague, Kari Morrissey. A veteran New Mexico defense lawyer who was steeped in gun culture, Morrissey had grown up in the mountains east of Albuquerque and had been given her first shotgun on her eighth birthday. Her knowledge of the “Rust” prosecutions was limited to what she had seen in the media, but she shared her initial impressions with Carmack-Altwies: The case against the armorer seemed solid, but she was less sure about the one against Baldwin.

Shortly after Morrissey started, in April 2023, Baldwin’s lawyers flew out to Santa Fe to try to persuade her to dismiss the charges against their client. The lead lawyer, Luke Nikas, gave a PowerPoint presentation that included a quote from an opinion piece by Alan Dershowitz in Newsweek, in which he argued that it would be impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin believed at any point that he was risking Hutchins’s life.

There was another potential problem: Baldwin’s lawyers were arguing that the gun that killed Hutchins had been modified before its use in a way that would in fact have made it more likely to discharge without the trigger being pulled. Morrissey wanted to have it retested, which also meant rebuilt: The F.B.I. had broken the gun as part of its original testing procedures in 2022, which involved hitting it repeatedly with a mallet. On April 21, 2023, Morrissey dismissed New Mexico’s charges against Baldwin, saying she would decide within 60 days whether to refile them.

It was an embarrassment for Carmack-Altwies, whose re-election campaign was just around the corner. The local, family-owned newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, had initially applauded her decision to charge Baldwin but now became critical of her handling of the prosecution. As of the end of March, The New Mexican reported, the state had allocated Carmack-Altwies $634,000 for the “Rust” cases. She had already spent a quarter of it, and only one individual, the armorer, was currently facing criminal charges. Some of the spending, as detailed in the article, did not appear to be advancing the cause of justice: One expert witness for the state, the armorer Bryan Carpenter, had been paid $1,596 for two days of media appearances, including an interview with Sean Hannity. “Prosecution Costs Climbing as ‘Rust’ Cases Crumble,” read the headline.

After 18 months with the prospect of a criminal trial hanging over his head, Baldwin figured that he could finally exhale. He posted a celebratory picture of himself and Hilaria on Instagram, thanking both her and the head of his legal team. The caption read, “I owe everything I have to this woman (and to you, Luke).”

The timing was perfect: “Rust” was scheduled to resume shooting days later — in Montana. The movie’s future had been up in the air after Hutchins’s death, but in the fall of 2022, a settlement was reached in Matthew Hutchins’s civil suit against Baldwin, Rust Movie Productions and other producers on the film. As part of the multimillion-dollar settlement, Matthew Hutchins would become one of the film’s executive producers, earning a share of the profits. It did not have a distributor yet, but now that its star was no longer facing criminal charges, it would presumably be easier to find one. Joel Souza, who had recovered from the gunshot wound, agreed to return to the director’s chair. “Every effort on this film,” he said in a statement, “will be devoted to honoring Halyna’s legacy and making her proud.”

By now, Baldwin was also involved in a movie about “Rust.” Hoping for a more nuanced, sympathetic telling of his story, he was cooperating on a documentary with the filmmaker Rory Kennedy, inviting her onto the new set in Montana with her own crew to capture the moment and conduct interviews. Baldwin asked Souza to sit for one, but Souza had no intention of doing so and was in fact angry about the whole project. He and other members of the “Rust” team were already participating in a different documentary with Matthew Hutchins about Halyna, and Souza was worried that Baldwin’s demands for on-set access for Kennedy would cause tension inside the production and possibly even derail the movie. Baldwin kept bringing up the subject of an interview, and Souza kept demurring, until he finally blew up. “There’s no way in hell I’m doing that,” he recalls telling Baldwin.

Sixty days passed, then 90. Then 120. New charges were looking increasingly unlikely. But the State of New Mexico wasn’t done with Alec Baldwin yet.

While Baldwin was attending to his reputational rehabilitation, Morrissey was reinvestigating the case. She had hired independent ballistics experts to rebuild the broken gun and determine whether it could have been fired without someone pulling the trigger. Their report confirmed the conclusion of the F.B.I.: It could not have been. Morrissey also interviewed selected crew members again and subpoenaed all the videos that were taken on set during the filming. To her eyes, a couple of them seemed to bolster the argument that Baldwin behaved recklessly with a firearm and contributed to the production’s rushed atmosphere. In one, he appears to be firing a gun after “cut” was called; in another, he is shouting at Gutierrez-Reed to quickly reload his revolver so they could reshoot the scene.

Morrissey’s theory of the case boiled down to this: Baldwin might not have been obligated to confirm that the gun was cold. But having dispensed with the inspection, he should have followed common-sense rules for handling any gun. He should not have pointed it at Hutchins, and he should not have pulled the trigger. And he should have been especially vigilant about those rules because of the armorer’s age and inexperience, the two previous accidental firings of blanks and the chaotic nature of the production.

On Oct. 5, 2023, Morrissey sent Baldwin’s lawyers an email notifying them that she intended to refile the charges against him for involuntary manslaughter and offering them the same deal the state had made with the assistant director: six months of probation in exchange for pleading guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon. She gave them 22 days to respond.

Ten days later, Morrissey got a call from Chloe Melas, a correspondent for NBC News who had been covering the Baldwin story. Melas had the details of the plea deal, which were supposed to be confidential. Morrisey also learned something else, as she would later write in a court filing: Baldwin’s lawyers were planning to take the deal but on the same day file a civil suit against the State of New Mexico, Carmack-Altwies and Reeb.

Morrissey found all of this “disturbing,” she wrote. Over the next few days, she weighed her options. A civil suit — timed to coincide with the guilty plea — seemed to her to be another ploy by Baldwin to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, distracting attention from the plea. Still, she was initially inclined to move forward with the deal. That changed, she wrote in the filing, when she learned that Baldwin had pressured potential witnesses to cooperate with Rory Kennedy’s documentary. Days after her call with Melas, Morrissey withdrew the plea offer. (Baldwin’s lawyers have disputed aspects of Morrissey’s account in their own filings.)

Three months later, on Jan. 18, she took the case before a grand jury in Santa Fe and won an indictment for involuntary manslaughter. By this point, Carmack-Altwies was in the midst of a primary challenge from her former boss, Marco Serna, and the Baldwin prosecution had become a wedge issue that each side was trying to exploit for political gain. “No one avoids culpability due to fame, wealth or connections in my jurisdiction,” her campaign wrote in a fund-raising email, even as Serna accused her of devoting too much time and money to what was, in the end, a low-level felony. “The taxpayers are going to end up spending a million dollars on the case,” Serna told me, “because she wanted to get her name in the papers.”

Gutierrez-Reed’s trial was held in Santa Fe in late February and early March. Morrissey argued that in addition to having made a fatal mistake loading Baldwin’s gun on that October afternoon, she was the one who brought the live rounds onto the set. Gutierrez-Reed’s lawyer, Jason Bowles, rebutted the claim, calling his young client a “convenient scapegoat” and shifting the blame to Baldwin, arguing that he was frequently going “off script” — making her job impossible — and that she lacked the authority to control him. “This was Mr. Baldwin’s project,” he said at one point. “Mr. Baldwin was in charge.”

Morrissey addressed the argument during her own closing statement, refocusing attention on Gutierrez-Reed, while teeing up what she expected to be her next “Rust” trial. “Alec Baldwin’s conduct and his lack of gun safety inside that church on that day is something that he’s going to have to answer for,” she said. “Not with you and not today. That’ll be with another jury, on another day.”

In yet another turn of the postmodern wheel, it’s now no longer legend that has become fact in the “Rust” case, but fact that has become legend: The story of Baldwin’s prosecution has come to resemble the plot of a western movie, testing the line between justice and vengeance. It is finally reaching its climactic third act, and the stakes have grown accordingly high, both for the prosecution, which has invested so much in seeing the case through, and of course for Baldwin. In March, Gutierrez-Reed was convicted and shortly afterward sentenced to the maximum 18 months in prison — the maximum for Baldwin, too, if he’s tried and convicted.

Morrissey, like Carmack-Altwies before her, insists that she is simply enforcing the law. But for Baldwin and his large legal team, the case against him has never been about the law, or even New Mexico’s gun culture. It has been, and continues to be, about publicity, political opportunism and the abuse of prosecutorial power. Since the withdrawn plea deal, the two sides have taken to injecting ad hominem attacks into their legal briefs. Like everything about this case, the conflict has cultural overtones: The big-city, East Coast corporate lawyers versus the small-town, Western prosecutors.

Some close to the case feel that the prosecution has long since departed from the principles of justice. “What evil are they trying to prevent?” Lisa Torraco, an Albuquerque defense lawyer who represented David Halls, told me. “Baldwin will never ever pick up a gun again without checking it. That’s what makes this prosecution so distasteful.” Others — including Matthew Hutchins, who has supported the prosecutors from the beginning — believe that justice will be served only when a jury hears the evidence against Baldwin and makes an independent decision about his culpability.

Whatever happens, the decision to prosecute Baldwin appears to have worked out for Carmack-Altwies. She handily won the Democratic primary this month. With no Republican challenger, she has effectively secured her re-election.

Baldwin has been at the center of the media maelstrom surrounding “Rust” for nearly three years now. During that time, his wife has given birth to their seventh child, even as his financial outlook has continued to darken. Matthew Hutchins’s lawyer, Brian Panish, told me that Baldwin, Rust Movie Productions and the other parties are months late on a payment — the amount is confidential — that is due to Hutchins and his son under their settlement. According to Panish, they are considering their options, which include suing for breach of agreement or resuming their original civil suit. Baldwin has slashed the asking price for his unsold Hamptons home by $10 million, and the cable channel TLC recently announced that he and his family will star in their own reality-TV show next year.

In an age of shrinking production budgets, “Rust” has become a cautionary tale of the dangers of trying to do too much with too little. The movie has been completed, but it still doesn’t have a distributor, and the entertainment executives I spoke with were not hopeful about its prospects. They were more optimistic about Baldwin’s. He has rebounded from every other controversy he has faced, and even in an era of grievance and polarization, scandals have a short half-life. In fact, the half-life of a scandal has maybe never been shorter, even apparently when it ends in a felony conviction. “The industry likes him,” Terry Press, a marketing consultant and former studio head, told me. “We are in a consequence-free environment, and he has plenty of good will. He will work again.”

Tyler Comrie is a graphic designer, illustrator and art director from Salt Lake City. He is known for his bold and conceptual book covers and editorial work.

Source photographs for above photo illustration: Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office/AFP, via Alamy; Bing Guan/Reuters.

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