A judge on Monday dropped criminal charges against two of the top officials at the Holyoke Soldiers Home, saying their actions did not lead to the deaths of five veterans in their care.
Former Holyoke superintendent Bennett Walsh and medical director Dr. David Clinton were each charged with five counts of elder neglect and five counts of permitting serious bodily injury to an elder for their roles in a COVID-19 outbreak that killed more than 70 veterans who lived in the home.
The charges focused on the care of five men infected with COVID-19 and were housed in a common area by Walsh and Clinton's order, as the short-handed staff scrambled to care for the ailing patients. Attorney General Maura Healey's office brought the charges to a grand jury, saying the decision by Walsh and Clinton to combine the dementia ward patients in one common area put them at greater risk of infection, dehydration and malnourishment.
Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough disagreed with Healey's assessment, writing in his decision that the five men in question were already sick with COVID-19 and therefore not placed in any more risk.
"The five named veterans were already exposed to COVID-19 before the dementia unit merger ever occurred," McDonough wrote in his decision. "There was insufficient reasonable trustworthy evidence presented to the grand jury that, had these two dementia units not been merged, the medical condition of any of these five veterans would been materially different."
In a brief statement released after the decision was issued, Healey's office did not rule out an appeal.
“We are very disappointed in today’s ruling, especially on behalf of the innocent victims and families harmed by the defendants’ actions," said Healey spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore. "We are evaluating our legal options moving forward.”
The Holyoke home made national news in March 2020, when COVID-19 spread like wildfire through the facility. In all, 76 veterans died from the infectious disease during the outbreak, and the National Guard was called in to take over care at the facility.
Almost immediately, Walsh, Clinton, state officials and health care workers inside the facility traded accusations and blame for the cascade of poor decisions leading up to the rash of deaths.
A state report called the decision-making by Walsh and others "utterly baffling," and extended blame to the then-Secretary of Veteran Affairs Francisco Urena. Other state lawmakers issued their own report that directed fault to Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration.
Walsh has pushed back on the criticism, denying a cover-up and saying he was left high and dry by his superiors.