SJC reestablishes charges against Holyoke Soldiers’ Home officials in COVID-19 veteran deaths case

HOLYOKE, Mass — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has reestablished criminal charges against officials from the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the deaths of nearly 80 veterans that died from a COVID-19 outbreak on the premises.

Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton may never be convicted of a crime, but the court ruled 5-2 Thursday that there was sufficient cause to have both men stand trial once again for the 76 COVID-related deaths.

In 2021, the state charged Walsh and Clinton with five counts of elder neglect and five counts of permitting serious bodily injury to an elder. The charges stemmed from the Soliders’ Home’s decision to merge two dementia housing units inside the building on March 27, 2020, in the early days of the pandemic.

In the Supreme Court’s decision, the majority of justices wrote that the Home placed veterans into a closely packed dining room with fellow patients that were displaying COVID-19 symptoms. According to court documents, Dr. Ronald Rosen, chief of geriatrics at the North Shore Medical Center in Salem, called the dining room “almost an incubator for COVID-19.”

Superior Court Justice Edward McDonough dismissed the charges in 2021, ruling that because the patients were exposed to COVID-19 before the merge occurred, there was not enough evidence to suggest the medical condition of five of the named veterans would have been any different.

However, the majority of justices ruled Thursday that both men could be considered “caretakers” of the housed veterans even though neither was in direct contact with the patients. As such, the panel will allow the state’s Attorney General’s office to present criminal charges against the two men.

Walsh was the “administrative head of the home,” while Clinton had “responsibility for the medical, surgical and outpatient facilities,” wrote the majority.

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

Justices David Lowy and Elspeth Cyher provided the two dissenting votes, citing the ever-changing protocols and guidelines during the dawn of the pandemic.

“As is often noted, hindsight is an exact science, but the protocols in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were anything but. At its core, this prosecution is nothing more than an exercise in assigning blame with the benefit of hindsight,” wrote Lowy.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell released the following statement:

“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.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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