Cases settled: 2 ex-officials of veterans home where 76 died in the pandemic avoid jail time

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BOSTON — Two former officials of a veterans home in Massachusetts where at least 76 people died in one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks in a long-term care facility settled their criminal case Tuesday without having to go to jail.

Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent of the Veterans’ Home in Holyoke, and Dr. David Clinton, the home’s former medical director, were facing five counts of criminal neglect after the Massachusetts’ highest court overruled a lower court judge last year and reinstated the charges.

Theirs was the first criminal case brought in the country against anyone connected to nursing homes deaths during the pandemic.

Prosecutors had sought guilty pleas and three years probation on the charges including one year of home confinement. They cited the bad conditions and lack of staffing at the facility and the need for a sentence that “merits real consequences.”

But defense attorneys argued the court had to take into account the fact that this was in the early days of the pandemic when the dangers of the disease were poorly understood and the facility, like many nursing homes at the time, was hamstrung by a lack of staffing and limited testing. They also argued that Walsh raised the alarm about conditions at the home but that those warnings didn’t go up the chain of command.

They sought and Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward J. McDonough accepted their request that each charge be continued without a finding for a three-month probationary period — a plea in which they acknowledge facts in the case could result in a guilty verdict on each count.

That ruling prompted anger from the state.

“Today the justice system failed the families who lost their loved ones at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home,” state Attorney General Andrea Campbell said in a statement. “I am disappointed and disheartened with the Court’s decision, and want these families and our veterans to know my office did everything it could to seek accountability. We will continue to be vigilant in prosecuting cases of elder abuse and neglect.”

Susan Kenney, whose father Charles Lowell died of Covid-19 at the home, was in court and expressed shock at the ruling.

“It’s disgusting, absolutely disgusting,” she said. “It’s just a injustice. There is no accountability. They need to be made examples of. Everyone knew that the virus was coming down the pike. You don’t contaminate people. There are basic things you don’t do and they were done there because their leadership sucked.”

Walsh and Clinton pleaded not guilty in 2020 to charges stemming from their decision in March of that year to combine two dementia units, bringing together residents who were positive for the coronavirus with those who had no symptoms.

A 2022 state Inspector General’s report found that Walsh lacked both the leadership skills and the temperament to run such a facility when he was hired in 2016. The 91-page report, which covers the period from May 2016 until February 2020 — just before the pandemic struck with full force — was also highly critical of the process that led to Walsh’s hiring as superintendent.

Walsh, a former Marine who resigned after criminal charges were filed, had no supervisory experience in a health care setting or skilled nursing facility when he was hired. Yet according to state law, such experience was not required of the home’s superintendent at the time.

In 2021, McDonough dismissed the charges. McDonough found that there was “insufficient reasonably trustworthy evidence that, had these two dementia units not been merged, the medical condition” of five veterans in question would have been materially different.

But last year, Massachusetts’ highest court reinstated charges. In their ruling, the majority of the justices found that the facts presented to the grand jury constituted probable cause to believe that Walsh and Clinton violated the elder abuse statute and that Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough Jr. erred in dismissing the charges.

In 2022, Massachusetts agreed to pay $56 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by the families of veterans who died.

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