Covid-19 Facilities Holyoke Soldiers' Home News Spotlight

2023-05-01 Spotlight: Comm. v. Clinton – MA Supreme Court re: Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

SJC reinstates criminal charges against managers of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 76 died early in pandemic
Boston Globe, April 27, 2023
By Ivy Scott and John R. Ellement

Families of the veterans say the decision offers ‘a glimmer of hope’ as they prepare for the upcoming trial.
The state’s highest court reinstated criminal charges on Thursday against Bennett Walsh and Dr. David Clinton, two former top officials of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home who were accused of neglecting veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic in which at least 76 residents died.

In a 5-2 ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court decided that while the deaths may not constitute a crime, the state attorney general’s office should have the opportunity to present its criminal case against the two men in Hampden Superior Court.
“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,” Justice Dalila A. Wendlandt wrote for the majority. “We conclude only that they will have the opportunity to do so.”

Relatives of the veterans who died celebrated the ruling, but said they are steeling themselves for the trial ahead.

“Obviously there’s no real justice yet, but just the fact that it’s moving forward is something to be hopeful about,” said Laurie Beaudette, whose father, James Mandeville, was one of the veterans to die of COVID-19 at the soldiers’ home in 2020.

The outbreak was exacerbated by what then-attorney general and now Governor Maura Healey called “tragic and deadly” decision-making by management at the veterans home, which included combining two dementia units due to alleged staffing shortages.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who is now prosecuting the case, called the court’s decision “welcome and important news” and said her office remains focused “once again on securing accountability for the tragic and preventable deaths at the soldiers’ home in Holyoke.”

The ruling “affirms what we already knew,” Campbell said in a statement. “The leaders and managers of facilities like the soldiers’ home share responsibility for the health and safety of their residents.”

Michael Jennings, a lawyer for Walsh, said that he was “a little disappointed” in the ruling, but that his team has been preparing for trial and welcomes the opportunity to defend his client.

“We’ll be ready when that opportunity comes,” he said.

Jeffrey Pyle, an attorney for Clinton, pointed to a dissenting opinion in the case, which he said “eloquently explains why this prosecution is misguided, and why Dr. Clinton is not guilty.”

In that dissenting opinion, Justices David Lowy and Elspeth Cypher argued that Bennett and Clinton were making decisions at a time when best medical practices were changing daily and that none of their actions were taken wantonly or recklessly, as required by law for them to be criminally charged.

“At its core, this prosecution is nothing more than an exercise in assigning blame with the benefit of hindsight,” Lowy wrote.

The grand jury indictments against Walsh, who as superintendent was the facility’s top manager, and Clinton, its medical director, were handed out in September 2020. Each was charged with elder neglect and permitting bodily injury involving five veterans after their choice to combine two dementia units allegedly put elderly veterans at risk. The case is believed to be the first US prosecution of nursing home caregivers over their handling of the pandemic.

In November, the charges were thrown out by Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward J. McDonough, who said there was no “reasonably trustworthy evidence” that their actions harmed veterans. Two months later, lawyers from the attorney general’s office asked the SJC to restore the criminal charges.

On Thursday, the SJC said there is sufficient probable cause to have the case proceed to trial as both men could be considered “caretakers” under state law, although they were not in direct contact with patients.

“Each is an individual who contractually is duty-bound, answerable, or accountable for the health, well-being, and safety of an elder or person with a disability,” the majority concluded.

David Schumacher, who has worked as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney and has closely followed the case, said the emotions underpinning the prosecution are likely to play a significant role in a trial. Still, he noted, prosecutors have the high burden of proving wanton or reckless behavior beyond a reasonable doubt.

“This was a tragedy, an awful, awful tragedy . . . and there’s going to be a completely understandable instinct to hold somebody responsible for that,” he said. But “everyone’s forgetting what it was like at the beginning of COVID. It was an unprecedented pandemic, and nobody knew what was going on . . . so I think it would be a close case.”

As the victims’ families praised the ruling, which some called overdue, they also expressed hope mingled with apprehension for the trial ahead, which has not yet been scheduled.

“We’ve been waiting an awful long time,” said Susan Kenney, whose father, Chuck Lowell, died during the outbreak. “I was certainly very ecstatic when I heard that [the lower court’s decision] was reversed, and hopefully . . . they will be found guilty as they should.”

Donna DiPalma, who lost her father, Emilio DiPalma, said she feels “a slight glimmer of hope” but is concerned that Walsh’s political connections in Springfield could influence the trial. His mother is a Springfield city councilor and his father is the city’s former veterans services director; his uncle and lawyer, William Bennett, is also the former district attorney for Hampden County, where the trial will take place.

“An unbiased hearing? I’m not sure that we can count on that because of all his connections,” she said. “I was hopeful when it was moved to Boston, but . . . the thought of bringing it back to the Springfield area is kind of a bummer.”

Jennings, Walsh’s attorney, said the jury selection process should eliminate any concern about bias.

Susan Regensburger, whose father, John MacKay, died in the outbreak, said that after more than a year of grief and anger, she no longer blames Walsh and Clinton. Instead, she is more upset with the then-state officials who appointed them, and with the health care system in general.

“If you’re going to bring somebody in to run a facility like that, they need to have medical background,” Regensburger said. “But over the last year and a half, I’ve just come to realize that unfortunately it was a freak thing that should never have happened. Wherever you were in the United States, people were doing the best they could.”

Many families said the cautious joy they feel is also dampened by the reality of having to relive the death of their loved ones. Holding back tears, DiPalma said that even three years later, when she picked up her father’s American flag in Holyoke last week, she couldn’t bear to open it.

“There have been so many ups and downs that I think we just want this wrapped up,” she said, “so we can 100 percent move on.”
SJC Reinstates Charges

  • The text of the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court is available at Commonwealth v. Clinton.
  • Dignity Alliance Massachusetts filed an amicus brief with the Court in this matter which may be viewed here: Amicus Brief