HOLYOKE, Mass. (State House News Service) — Two former officials at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home pleaded not guilty Thursday to criminal charges linking them to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, with one attorney indicating the former superintendent is eager to clear his name.
In a case that Attorney General Maura Healey has described as the first of its kind nationwide amid the pandemic, the home's former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former Medical Director David Clinton face allegations that their neglectful actions contributed to the deaths of several elderly veterans this spring.
During a virtual arraignment hearing, Walsh's attorney Michael Jennings vehemently defended the home's former top leader, arguing that conditions state attorneys attempted to set on both men as the legal process unfolds would color public perception against them.
"Believe me, nobody feels worse about this, other than the families, than Mr. Walsh does," Jennings said, later adding, "He's anxious to confront these charges and to defend himself."
Walsh and Clinton were top leaders at the home when COVID-19 swept through the state-run facility in the spring. The virus has been linked to the deaths of at least 76 residents in the Holyoke Soldiers' Home.
Prosecutors allege that the decision Walsh and Clinton made on March 27 to combine 42 residents from two separate dementia units, some who were positive for the highly infectious coronavirus, into a single unit that normally holds 25 beds exacerbated transmission with deadly consequences.
A statewide grand jury indicted Walsh, a 50-year-old Springfield resident, and Clinton, a 71-year-old South Hadley resident, in September on five counts each of caretaker neglect of an elder or disabled person and five counts each of causing or permitting serious bodily injury to an elder or disabled person.
State attorneys asked Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough to impose four conditions on both Walsh and Clinton: barring them from working in any long-term care facility while the case continues, ordering them to have no personal contact with victims' family members or witnesses, instructing them to check in monthly with probation, and requiring them to notify probation before any out-of-state travel.
They did not seek any bail requirement for either defendant.
Clinton's attorney had agreed to those requirements, but Jennings condemned the request as implying that his client is guilty and is a threat to the public.
Jennings emphasized that his goal was not to obstruct the case and that Walsh does not wish to find a new job in long-term care. He objected, he said, because of how those conditions would reflect on the defendants, claiming "there's enough bad perception in this case already."
"There's an implication in all of these things, there's a public perception in all of these things, that for some reason Mr. Walsh is being sanctioned because he's a danger to work in such a facility or that he's a person who might harass family members of the veterans that he loved so much," Jennings said.
Assistant Attorney General Kaushal Rana described the request as "pretty standard conditions in a criminal matter" that are reasonable given the allegations against Walsh and Clinton.
McDonough decided not to impose any of the conditions, instead instructing all parties that if any issues arise, Walsh and Clinton must inform their attorneys and that he could reconvene a hearing to impose conditions if the need becomes clear in the future.
Jennings cited Walsh's military service during the hearing, using his record to argue that the former superintendent -- who appeared on the Zoom call, as did Clinton -- will participate in any court events willingly.
"He's appeared everywhere he's been ever asked to appear in his life," Jennings said. "He appeared in Somalia, where his unit was well-decorated in the Black Hawk Down matter that we all saw so much about. He appeared in Iraq after 9/11 from 2001 through 2006, where he led over 500 combat missions in the streets of Fallujah and other places. He showed up in Afghanistan in 2010 where he was decorated for his service there."
Walsh had successfully challenged his firing as superintendent, but in early October, he resigned, according to a Springfield Republican report.
Attorneys will meet for an out-of-court pre-trial conference on Feb. 3, 2021 and then again in court on March 22, 2021.
In addition to the investigation Healey conducted that preceded the indictments, several other independent probes of the tragic outbreak -- one of the most fatal in the country involving a long-term care facility -- are ongoing.
U.S Attorney Andrew Lelling is conducting his own investigation, while a special legislative oversight committee has been holding hearings on the topic.
Gov. Charlie Baker also tapped former U.S. Attorney Mark Pearlstein to examine the crisis. Pearlstein concluded in a report released in June that "utterly baffling" decisions and a series of delays and failures directly contributed to the deaths.
Baker appointed Walsh in May 2016, and Pearlstein's investigation found several concerns about his job performance before the pandemic hit.
One day before Pearlstein's report was published, former Veterans' Services Secretary Francisco Urena resigned.
By Chris Lisinski, State House News Service