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Analysis: Soldiers’ Home Justice Is a Bigger Project Than Two Defendants’ Sentences…

Holyoke Soldiers' Home

A chapter closes at last…but only if the people and their representatives learned something. (WMP&I)

Nearly four years after the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon Holyoke and the then-Soldiers’ Home, its final legal drama has apparently concluded. The only two people to face criminal charges from the outbreak changed their pleas, essentially throwing themselves upon the mercy of the court. A judge obliged. Former superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton received three months of probation.

The COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home that claimed at least 76 lives was perhaps the 413’s defining pandemic trauma. Families of the dead understandably blasted Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough’s sentencing. The state, the Soldiers Home and their leaders utterly betrayed the trust families placed in one of this region’s most hallowed institutions. Behind that are failures of oversight and the grubbiness of state political calculations that require active efforts to prevent another tragedy.

McDonough was the same judge who dismissed the elder abuse charges and whom the Supreme Judicial Court reversed. The legal basis for his dismissal in 2021 was compelling. Nevertheless, the sentence does smack of political entanglements at the heart of this tragedy.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who inherited the case from now-Governor Maura Healey, asked for three years of probation and year of home confinement for both men.

“Today the justice system failed the families who lost their loved ones at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. I am disappointed and disheartened with the Court’s decision, and want these families and our veterans to know my office did everything it could to seek accountability,” Campbell said in a statement. “We will continue to be vigilant in prosecuting cases of elder abuse and neglect.”

Some have observed that the person who installed Walsh, former Governor Charlie Baker, has dodged accountability or even an apology. The political connection angle is not untrue. Yet, the choice of Walsh satisfied other Baker political needs that the outbreak should lay bare.

Edward McDonough

Back again? Was Judge McDonough’s sentence justice or just déjà vu? (via

With jail off the table, the lightness of McDonough’s sentence does slap a bit. The SJC’s reversal of McDonough had—or should have—reshaped popular thinking a bit. The facts alleged in the indictment were sufficient to sustain the charges. Proving them would have been a high hurdle. But now, the defendants are all but admitting to them.

The families were equally irate. Several The Boston Globe spoke to said jail time would have been appropriate. Instead, it was “less than a slap on the wrist.”

“I am very disappointed and disgusted that the family members did not get any justice for their loved ones,” Laurie Mandeville-Beaudette told The Globe. Her father died from COVID-19 in April 2020.

“I am absolutely disgusted,” Erin Schadel told the paper. Her father lived through the outbreak and remains a resident at the Home. “The value of a veteran’s life is three months?”

Yet, McDonough also reflects, to some extent, the skepticism in the Valley about how much blame Clinton and Walsh really deserve. It is not controversial among the region’s chattering classes to say Walsh should have never received the job. There is more doubt as to whether his and Clinton’s actions merited criminal prosecution.

But whatever questions about the prosecution should come second to how the situation was even possible. A hint exists in what was likely a key plank of Clinton and Walsh’s defense: understaffing. In their theory, the combination of units—the overt act at the heart of the charges—that prosecutors say prompted the spread was unavoidable given low staff. COVID-19 infections further thinned the ranks.

However, prosecutors were ready to lay out a bunch of other options the duo could have made. Whether a jury would have bought them is unknowable. Still, Clinton and Walsh were facing trial for their actions amid the pandemic in March 2020.

The legislature overhauled the superintendent appointment process and leadership at the now-Veterans Home. Had this system existed then, it would have been difficult for then-Governor Baker to make such a politically expedient appointment.

Baker, Walsh, Sudders & Urena

Walsh, second left, with his true accomplices? (via Twitter/@MassHHS)

But some have remarked that continued underfunding and diminution of the Soldiers’ Home left a ticking time bomb on Cherry Hill in Holyoke. Much has been made of Walsh’s lack of qualifications. However, he did have one qualification. Like a good marine, he followed orders. Most importantly, he did not contradict the Baker admin’s bean counters.

Legislators have said that prior superintendents would share requests that failed to make the budgets of Baker and prior governors. That stopped with Walsh.

As obsessed with flogging Baker as this blog is, the legislature cannot escape responsibility here. It did not need to wait for 76 deaths in a global pandemic to take seriously the charge implicit in founding state veteran facilities. It doesn’t take much effort to look at the budgeted and/or utilized personnel expenses to see too few employees. The Home’s union was not exactly mute either.

The slow bleed of the state workforce did not begin under Baker—well, maybe if you count his time in Bill Weld’s secretariat. However, had the legislature woken up to what was happening at the Home, it might have realized the issued extended much further.

This political expediency worked for everybody. Nobody had to affirmatively shut down big, popular programs or agencies. Nor did they have to present voters with tax increases to sustain services.

Just as guilty are the antitax hacks who shoved tax-slashing ballot questions into voters’ faces for years with no plausible explanation of where to cut. This is not an ideological complaint. Voters can choose for less, smaller or cheaper government but the advocates have the onus to say what should go. Underfunding is a punt, but that is what Baker, previous governors, the legislature and low tax zealats made.

Behold the result.

Those that makes such choices could never face trial.

It is obviously good that the governor cannot rest on political expediency alone to staff the Veterans Home. However, nobody can bind future legislatures and governors to properly and fully fund the Veterans Home in Holyoke and its sister facility in Chelsea.

True justice for the dead will be harder than throwing anybody in the slammer. It is officials fulfilling the commitments our society makes—and voters demanding the same while rejecting the siren of easier and cheaper paths.