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Ex-leaders of Massachusetts veterans' home avoid prison over COVID outbreak

Published 03/26/2024, 06:30 PM
Updated 03/26/2024, 07:10 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Signs of support and remembrance are seen outside the Soldiers Home, where 88 veteran residents have died during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Holyoke, Massachusetts, U.S., May 13, 2020.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) - Two former leaders of a Massachusetts veterans' home that was the site of one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks at a U.S. long-term care facility on Tuesday resolved criminal neglect charges against them without having to go to prison.

Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former Medical Director David Clinton withdrew their previous not guilty pleas during hearings in Hampshire Superior Court and admitted there were facts sufficient to find them guilty of the charges against them, prosecutors said.

The case had been set to go to trial next week. State prosecutors had asked for both men to be sentenced to one year of home confinement, with three years of probation.

At the urging of defense lawyers, Justice Edward McDonough instead continued the cases against them without a finding of guilt for a three-month period, at which point the charges could be dismissed if they comply with certain conditions.

Those requirements include barring them from working in a nursing home or initiating contact with victims' families. The judge had previously dismissed the case, but Massachusetts' highest court revived it last year.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell said she was "disappointed and disheartened" by the judge's decision. "Today the justice system failed the families who lost their loved ones at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home," Campbell said.

The coronavirus caused severe illness and death in many nursing homes nationally, and the outbreak in the 247-bed, state-run facility in Holyoke was one of the deadliest.

In bringing the charges in September 2020, then-Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, now the state's Democratic governor, touted the criminal case as the first in the country tied to a COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing facility.

The case focused on a March 2020 decision to consolidate two dementia units, which prosecutors said put residents who tested positive for COVID-19 close to ones without symptoms and increased the risk that residents would contract the virus.

Prosecutors accused Walsh and Clinton of criminal neglect in the case of five veterans, saying the merger increased the danger they faced by putting them in essentially an incubator for COVID.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Signs of support and remembrance are seen outside the Soldiers Home, where 88 veteran residents have died during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Holyoke, Massachusetts, U.S., May 13, 2020.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Walsh's lawyer, Michael Jennings, in court on Tuesday stressed how "poorly understood" the virus was at the beginning of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, and how, like his predecessors, the Marine Corps veteran lacked training to lead a nursing facility.

The state of Massachusetts in 2022 agreed to pay nearly $58 million to resolve a lawsuit by families of veterans who contracted COVID-19 during the outbreak.

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