Commonwealth appeals indictment dismissal in Holyoke Soldiers’ Home case

The Commonwealth is appealing the dismissal of an indictment for elder neglect after the dementia housing units were merged at the home during the pandemic.
Published: Jan. 4, 2023 at 9:14 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 4, 2023 at 10:18 PM EST
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HOLYOKE, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - The state’s top court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case against former heads of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

The Commonwealth is appealing the dismissal of an indictment for elder neglect after the dementia housing units were merged at the home during the pandemic.

The state is looking into former superintendent Bennet Walsh and former medical director David Clinton’s alleged roles in the deadly COVID-19 outbreak in the Holyoke Soldiers Home back in 2020 that took the lives of nearly 80 veterans.

One of the main things the court is trying to uncover is whether or not Holyoke Medical Center reached out to Walsh or Clinton to offer assistance with taking in veterans.

The state’s supreme judicial court heard arguments in the Holyoke Soldiers Home case Wednesday after a judge dismissed the criminal neglect charges against Walsh and Clinton back in 2021, saying there was not enough evidence to prove their actions led to those deaths. Close to 80 veterans died from the virus in the home in 2020.

In September of that year, Walsh and Clinton were indicted by a statewide grand jury on neglect charges after it was alleged that they put more than 40 veterans in a dementia unit that usually only houses 25, knowing some were COVID positive while others were not. Walsh and Clinton were each indicted on 10 criminal charges; if convicted, they could have faced decades behind bars.

Attorney General and Governor-Elect Maura Healey filed an appeal to that ruling in December of 2021, saying, quote:

“The tragic loss of life at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home broke the promise that our Commonwealth would honor these men who bravely served our country. We are filing this notice of appeal…to pursue accountability on behalf of their loved ones and communities.”

On Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Anna Lumelsky presented arguments for the Commonwealth.

“If you look at the testimony of the witnesses, they describe bodies on top of bodies,” she said. “They describe a warzone situation. One of the family members said she felt like they were being treated like a barn full of animals, that it was a death trap.”

The court grilled the Commonwealth, saying that they have to show probable cause and reckless neglect.

“What you need to show, tell me if I have this wrong, is that all this is creating an increased risk of the substantial likelihood of harm,” Justice David Lowy said.

“They have no staffing,” Justice Scott Kafker added. “They have to do something. But, to me, the critical fact is, there is some availability at the Holyoke Medical Center, right? Without that, though, they’re doing the best they can, right?”

Meanwhile, Clinton’s attorney, Jeffrey Pile, argued his issues with the indictments.

“There was absolutely no evidence that Dr. Clinton met the narrow statutory definition of caretaker set forth in this statute, and the second was that there was no evidence that the authorization of the merger, which is the only thing these defendants have been indicted for, created a substantial risk of harm that wasn’t there already,” Pile said.

“When they merged those units and put all those people together, they are certainly increasing the likelihood of harm that those people are going to get COVID,” Justice Kafker said. “There’s just no way that’s not true.”

One main issue the court focused on was an alleged offer from the Holyoke Medical Center to help by taking in veterans. The state said that Walsh never contacted Holyoke Medical Center, despite them reaching out. However, Walsh’s attorney William Bennett said that there was never an offer to begin with.

“There was no discussion at any time with the Holyoke Medical Center where they offered to take in people from the Holyoke Soldiers Home, to take in people that did not need treatment,” Bennett said. “That never happened.”

A decision was not made Wednesday. The justices will take the matter under advisement, meaning it could be months before they make a ruling on the appeal.