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SJC reinstates charges against former Holyoke Soldiers' Home administrators

Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh spoke at the 2020 Iwo Jima Day ceremony at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Chris Van Buskirk
State House News Service
Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh spoke at the 2020 Iwo Jima Day ceremony at the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Massachusetts’ highest court has reinstated criminal charges against two former leaders at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. The case is tied to how a deadly COVID-19 outbreak was handled in 2020. At least 76 veterans at the state-run facility died.

In an opinion released Thursday, by a 5-2 margin, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the former director of the Soldiers’ Home, Bennett Walsh, and its former medical director, David Clinton, should face criminal neglect charges stemming from “wanton and reckless behavior” which endangered the lives of disabled veterans.

The office of former Attorney General Maura Healey secured a grand jury indictment in September 2020. But in November, 2021, Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough allowed motions by both defendants to dismiss the charges over a lack of evidence. Healey’s office then appealed the decision and the SJC took up the case earlier this year.

The SJC majority ruled even though Walsh and Clinton were not directly involved in patient care, they still are considered "caretakers" under the state’s elder care laws, and that there was enough probable cause to allow the case to go forward.

“Of course, sometimes bad things happen for no discernible reason, and no one is to blame,” wrote Justice Dalila Wendlandt for the majority. “At any subsequent trial, prosecutors will need to prove their case. We conclude only that they will have the opportunity to do so”.

Justices David Lowy and Elspeth Cypher were in the minority. In a dissenting opinion, Lowy wrote there was not enough evidence before the grand jury to show that the pair “acted wantonly or recklessly, as required to support an indictment.”

Lowy also seemed to have at least some sympathy for the defendants.

“At its core, this prosecution is nothing more than an exercise in assigning blame with the benefit of hindsight,” he wrote. “A finding of probable cause that the defendants acted wantonly or recklessly in this case ignores the chaos, uncertainty, and unknowns present during the earliest days of the pandemic.”

Attorney Michael Jennings, who represents Walsh, said Thursday afternoon, "I'm not shocked, I'm disappointed, but we've been preparing for trial…and we'll be ready to challenge the commonwealth's evidence."

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell, whose office is prosecuting the case, inherited it from her predecessor, Maura Healey, who is now governor.

In a statement, Campbell said: “The Court’s decision today is welcome and important news, and it affirms what we already knew: the leaders and managers of facilities like the Soldiers’ Home share responsibility for the health and safety of their residents. Today’s decision allows us to focus once again on securing accountability for the tragic and preventable deaths at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.”

The majority opinion of the SJC cites grand jury testimony prior to the indictments to paint a picture of the chaos allegedly taking place at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

In the early days of the pandemic, with COVID-19 spreading in the facility, a staffing shortage took place, with workers either getting sick themselves or not showing up out of fear of the virus, according to the testimony. In response, Walsh and Clinton directed staff to combine two units of veterans, totaling 42 residents, and placed them in a space designed for a maximum of 25. Veterans with COVID-19 were combined with those who did not.

”As one witness told the grand jury, there were ‘bodies on top of bodies.’ '[T]ightly packed together and sick,' and 'coughing on top of each other,'" Justice Wendlandt wrote.

Clinton and Walsh are also accused of not accepting offers of assistance from Carl Cameron, the Chief Operating Officer of Holyoke Medical Center, a nearby hospital. Cameron grew concerned after residents from the Soldiers’ Home were admitted to the emergency department.

According to the SJC decision, Cameron reached out to Walsh to offer help. Walsh allegedly didn’t respond. Clinton, meanwhile, is said to have downplayed the situation and declined assistance from Cameron.

As the situation grew even worse, the National Guard was called in to provide assistance at the Soldiers’ Home while Walsh was put on leave and later fired and Clinton resigned.

The outbreak and how it was handled was the subject of multiple investigations, legislation changing how the Holyoke facility and another in Chelsea are governed, and a push to build a more modern building in Holyoke.

A class action lawsuit between victims of the outbreak and their families against the state was settled last year for $58 million.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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