Judge dismisses criminal neglect charges in COVID outbreak at Soldiers’ Home

  • Former superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Bennett Walsh, right, listens to testimony while sitting next to his attorney, William Bennett, during a hearing in Hampden Superior Court, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Springfield. The hearing was held to consider a motion to dismiss criminal charges against Walsh and former medical director, Dr. David Clinton, in the criminal case brought against them by Attorney General Maura Healey due to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. DON TREEGER/THE REPUBLICAN VIA AP

Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2021 7:53:57 PM
Modified: 11/22/2021 7:53:42 PM

SPRINGFIELD — A Hampden Superior Court judge has dismissed criminal charges against two former officials at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke over their roles in a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the facility last year.

Former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh and the facility’s former medical director, Dr. David Clinton, both faced criminal neglect charges brought by Attorney General Maura Healey over their roles during the massive outbreak, which killed at least 76 veteran residents. But in a ruling Monday, Judge Edward McDonough Jr. found that there was “insufficient reasonably trustworthy evidence” that the two men’s actions caused any of the deaths.

A grand jury’s indictment of Clinton and Walsh in September 2020 rested on a decision made in the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak at the 247-bed facility to combine two dementia units after many employees had called out of work with COVID-19 symptoms, packing residents into even closer quarters than usual.

On Monday, McDonough ruled that there was no evidence that any of the five veterans named in the case contracted the coronavirus as a result of that unit merger.

“The five named veterans were already exposed to COVID-19 before the dementia unit merger ever occurred,” he wrote. “There was insufficient reasonably trustworthy evidence presented to the grand jury that, had these two dementia units not been merged, the medical condition of any of these five veterans would have been materially different.”

Clinton’s attorney, Jeffrey Pyle, said McDonough’s decision came after the judge pored over the evidence that was before the grand jury.

“The judge determined there was no evidence whatsoever that anything Dr. Clinton did in the early days of this tragic pandemic caused any serious bodily injury or caused neglect,” Pyle said.

Pyle added that the legal bar the state’s prosecutors had to clear to prevail on the motion to dismiss was “very low.” Healey’s office had only to show there was “some evidence” Clinton’s actions caused the tragic outcome to occur, he said.

“Dr. Clinton feels vindicated about this ruling,” he said. “Of course, his heart goes out to everyone who lost their life or who was infected during this tragic occurrence.”

When asked whether Healey planned to appeal the decision, Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, said that the attorney general’s office is “evaluating our legal options moving forward.”

“We are very disappointed in today’s ruling, especially on behalf of the innocent victims and families harmed by the defendants’ actions,” Fennimore said.

Walsh and Clinton, among others, are still facing a civil lawsuit brought by employees at the Soldiers’ Home and a class action suit brought by the family of a veteran who died.

Walsh and Clinton were facing five counts each related to two separate charges: “Caretaker Who Wantonly or Recklessly Commits or Permits Bodily Injury to an Elder or Disabled Person,” and “Caretaker Who Wantonly or Recklessly Commits or Permits Abuse, Neglect, or Mistreatment to an Elder or Disabled Person.” The bodily harm charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in state prison, and the other charge carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Clinton’s and Walsh’s lawyers made a statutory argument that the two former Soldiers’ Home leaders didn’t meet the definition of a caregiver under the law they were alleged to have broken.

McDonough wrote in his ruling that even if there had been probable cause to believe the veterans suffered bodily injury and neglect, the charges must still be dismissed because neither defendant was the “caretaker of an elder” providing “primary and substantial assistance” for the care of the veterans as defined under the law. He noted that the state’s prosecutors conceded at a previous hearing that no court had ever previously held that an administrator making facilities and staffing decisions was a “caretaker.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com. 
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