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Walsh, Clinton avoid trial in Holyoke Soldiers' Home COVID-19 outbreak cases

Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, exits Hampshire Superior Court on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.
Adam Frenier
Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, exits Hampshire Superior Court on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.

Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and ex- medical director Dr. David Clinton, resolved their respective criminal cases stemming from a deadly COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

Walsh and Clinton faced criminal neglect charges in connection with their handling of the crisis — which led to the deaths of at least 76 veterans at the state-run facility.

Instead of going to trial, they separately changed their pleas from not guilty. They each submitted that there were sufficient facts to warrant a guilty finding. They did not plead guilty, however.

During proceedings in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton Tuesday, Judge Edward McDonough Jr. continued each case without a finding for three months and
gave certain conditions for each defendant. Neither faces probation, and if they abide by the terms, the cases will be set aside — without a conviction on either Walsh or Clinton’s record.

Prosecutors from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office had proposed three years of probation, which included a year of home confinement for both.

Deputy Chief Kevin Lownds made the case that Walsh and Clinton acted recklessly when, during the early days of the pandemic, they decided to combine two units of
veterans into a space not big enough for all of them, which only made the situation worse. He faulted their handling in other areas as well.

During Walsh’s hearing, Lownds also made the point that imposing a stricter punishment would send a message to other caregivers across the state.

"It is critically important for caregivers to know that when they wantonly or recklessly fail to give appropriate care to these populations, they face serious consequences," Lownds said. "We believe a meaningful sentence for them will send a powerful message to those who care for our most vulnerable."

Walsh’s attorney, Michael Jennings, in his remarks asking for the lighter consequence, painted Walsh as a brave Marine officer who had served several tours of duty overseas. He also argued as COVID-19 spiraled out of control across Massachusetts, there was little that could be done, in Holyoke or elsewhere.

“In the face of such tragedy, perhaps hurling such blame and subjecting the defendants to imprisonment might salve our conscious, but criminalizing blame will do nothing to prevent further tragedy or help unravel the complex reasons why the response at the Soldiers' Home and so many nursing homes proved inadequate in the nascent days of the pandemic," Jennings said.

McDonough ended up imposing the lighter punishment requested by the defense, despite being in receipt of many impact statements made by family members of those Soldiers’ Home residents who died in the outbreak. One of them was read aloud by the prosecutor, Lownds.

After Walsh’s hearing concluded, in the hallway outside the courtroom, Susan Kenney, who lost her father in the outbreak, said justice hadn’t been done, and criticized Walsh.

"He was not present, he created a milieu of complacency, and he was no kind of leader at all," she said, crying near the elevator.

Clinton’s hearing unfolded much the same as Walsh’s and with the same finding.

Clinton’s attorney, John Lawler, would not comment directly on the end result, only saying, "He feels and I feel great sympathy for the loss of these veterans, for the suffering of these veterans and also for the families that suffered as well."

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell said in a statement after the proceedings that she was “disappointed and disheartened” by the decision.

"Today the justice system failed the families who lost their loved ones at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home,” she said.

Campbell inherited the case from her predecessor, Maura Healey, who is now governor.

In 2021, McDonough, the judge in the case, dismissed the charges for a lack of evidence. The AG’s office appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which last year overturned the dismissal and sent the case back to Superior Court.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.