Judge dismisses criminal charges against Bennett Walsh

Finds Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent not liable for COVID outbreak

A HAMPDEN SUPERIOR COURT judge on Monday dismissed all criminal charges against former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh and medical director David Clinton for their roles in the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the home. 

Attorney General Maura Healey had filed charges against the two top Soldiers’ Home officials alleging that their reckless conduct in managing the home contributed to the outbreak, which resulted in the deaths of 76 veterans who were living at the home. 

But Judge Edward McDonough agreed with Walsh and Clinton that the two men should not be held criminally liable for their actions in the early days of the pandemic. Neither man is still working there. Walsh was fired due to the outbreak and Clinton resigned. 

“We are very disappointed in today’s ruling, especially on behalf of the innocent victims and families harmed by the defendants’ actions,” said Healey spokesperson Jillian Fennimore. “We are evaluating our legal options moving forward.”  

Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. (Twitter photo)

William Bennett, an attorney for Walsh, said he is reviewing the court’s decision and had no comment. 

The criminal case centered around a single decision that was made on March 27, 2020 — as COVID was beginning to infect residents – to combine two dementia units into one in order to deal with staffing shortages. Independent reviews of the outbreak faulted home leaders for the decision. The charges related specifically to five veterans housed in the combined unit, who were asymptomatic at the time they were moved there. Three of them contracted COVID and one died. 

Walsh and Clinton argued that, of the five veterans named as part of the lawsuit, there is no evidence that their outcomes were affected by the unit merger.  

McDonough found in his 22-page ruling that the five veterans had already been exposed to COVID at the time the units were combined and “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.” 

McDonough noted the context of the decision. Nurses afraid of COVID or ill with COVID were calling in sick in unprecedented numbers. Walsh had sought assistance unsuccessfully from the National Guard. To best utilize the depleting nursing staff, Walsh and Clinton combined the two units and put nine veterans who were asymptomatic but exposed to roommates with COVID in temporary beds in a dining room. 

Testimony before a grand jury, mentioned in McDonough’s ruling, confirms observations by the independent report done by attorney Mark Pearlstein that the number of staff were insufficient to properly feed and care for all the veterans, and the merged unit was chaotic and disorganized.  

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About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

But none of the testimony mentioned those conditions specifically harming the five veterans listed in the criminal case or indicated that the men had become exposed to COVID for the first time on that unit. In fact, testimony indicated that the men were exposed to COVID before being moved there, but whether they had the virus was unknown because they were not tested. “It is sheer speculation that the five named veterans’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 happened after the dementia unit merger, rather than before,” McDonough wrote. 

The charges were also based on a law that applies to a “caretaker” of an elderly person, and McDonough found that the law applies only to a direct caretaker and does not include a manager or administrator responsible for overseeing that care. 

There is still a separate civil lawsuit pending, which families of deceased veterans filed in US District Court.