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Court rules to protect jurors ignored amid Alec Baldwin 'Rust' trial objections

Court rules to protect jurors ignored amid Alec Baldwin ‘Rust’ trial objections
Top left: witness Timoteo Benavidez; Top right: prosecutor Erlinda Johnson — behind her sits defense attorney Alex Spiro; Bottom center: defendant Alec Baldwin in court on July 10, 2024 (Law&Crime)

When the attorneys on either side of the second “Rust” manslaughter trial sat at their respective tables and later rose to speak at the lectern on Wednesday morning in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there were clear rules set forth by the judge on how they were supposed to object.

First Judicial District Court Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer ruled on Monday during a pretrial hearing that objections would be dealt with during effectively secret sidebars. Instead of objecting on grounds audible to the gallery, each side was expected to ask to approach the bench before complaining to the court about any given question or statement — so as not to use objections to influence jurors.

Those rules were necessary, the judge said, because both “sides have been contentious with one another” and she wanted to limit the potential for any improper off-the-cuff statements.

By midday on day one, however, those rules went out the window.

Jurors and national viewers alike got a taste of the rules in practice just a few minutes into the defense’s opening statement on Monday.

The state raised objections at least three times, one of which drew an audible complaint from defense attorney Alex Spiro that prosecutors had already “consented” to what he was doing — which was playing a short clip from police-worn body camera footage.

Another objection-sidebar was called when the defense rattled off a list of violent films including “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in order to make a point about guns being something not entirely unlike integral on movie sets. Yet another silent sidebar was called when Spiro discussed “the human condition” and “grief” in the context of upcoming testimony.

The rules apparently remained in place as the state’s first witness, current Santa Fe Police Department officer — and former Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputy — Nicholas LeFleur took the stand.

But the quiet objection standard steadily slipped away just as nearly as soon as LeFleur came under cross-examination.

“He was very shocked, an actor out of character, fair?” Spiro asked at one point — referring to his client.

To which LeFleur replied: “Sure.”

Special prosecutor Kari Morrissey cut in: “Objection — the form of a question. It is Mr. Spiro testifying in the question.”

The judge said: “We are not going to do these without this.”

Then the prosecutor then asked to approach.

Moments later, Spiro essayed another line of questioning.

He asked the former deputy if Baldwin expressed concern about the victims of the shooting that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, and wounded director Joel Souza, 51, on Oct. 21, 2021.

The deputy responded in the affirmative each time.

Then, Spiro asked the witness if prosecutors had asked him about Baldwin’s questions immediately after the shooting.

Again Morrissey objected by naming the objection. This time, she cried foul over “relevance.”

Later during LeFleur’s cross examination, the state objected audibly again by calling out a “hearsay” complaint.

By the time the state’s second witness, retired sheriff’s office lieutenant Timoteo Benavidez, took the stand, Spiro was not shy.

Prosecutor Erlinda Johnson, who provided the state’s opening statement, was asking a series of questions about the scene of the shooting. Then, she got to the location of the prop cart — where the gun in question was stored in between practice takes.

“Was that cart in a place that was visible to everybody who worked on that set?” Johnson asked the witness.

Spiro cut in: “Objection. Calls for speculation.”

Momentarily tripped up, the prosecutor began again haltingly — then said she would rephrase the question.

“Was it in a visible place?” she asked.

Again Spiro exclaimed his objection for all to hear. The defense attorney shook his head and raised his hands in the air, affecting an I-give-up stance: “Objection. Vague. Unclear.”

The state changed its question again.

This time, the witness answered.

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Source: Law&Crime