Former Massachusetts veterans’ home leaders escape prison sentence for COVID outbreak, report says

Former Massachusetts veterans’ home leaders escape prison sentence for COVID outbreak, report says

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) – Two former executives of a Massachusetts veterans home that was the site of one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks at a long-term care facility in the United States resolved on Tuesday criminal negligence charges brought against them without having to go to jail.

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 sufficient facts to convict them of the charges against them, prosecutors said.

The case was scheduled to go to trial next week. State prosecutors had requested that the two men be sentenced to one year of home confinement, with three years of probation.

At the request of defense lawyers, Judge Edward McDonough instead continued the proceedings against them without a guilty verdict being entered for a period of three months, after which the charges could be dropped if they met certain conditions.

These demands include a ban on working in a retirement home or coming into contact with victims’ families. The judge 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 has caused serious illness and death in many nursing homes nationwide, and the outbreak at the 247-bed public 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 nation related to a COVID-19 outbreak at a facility nursing care.

The case focused on a March 2020 decision to consolidate two dementia units, which prosecutors say placed residents who tested positive for COVID-19 closer to those who did not have symptoms and increased the risk that residents contract the virus.

Prosecutors accused Walsh and Clinton of criminal negligence in the case of five veterans, saying the merger increased the danger they faced by essentially placing them in a COVID incubator.

Walsh’s attorney, Michael Jennings, emphasized in court Tuesday how “poorly understood” the virus was early in the pandemic, before vaccines were available, and how, like his predecessors, the Corps veteran Marines lacked training to run a nursing facility.

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

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