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‘He’s not a runner,’ attorney for ex-Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent says at arraignment

By STEPHANIE BARRY | masslive.com | Published: November 5, 2020

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — An attorney for former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh cited his client’s military record on global battlefields while waging his own fight against conditions of pretrial release during Walsh’s arraignment on criminal charges.

Walsh and former Soldiers' Home medical director Dr. David Clinton on Thursday each pleaded not guilty to 10 criminal neglect charges linked to the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the state-run nursing home for veterans.

The men were indicted Sept. 24 by a grand jury convened by state Attorney General Maura Healey, who billed the prosecution as the first of its kind in the nation. They face potential decades in prison if convicted, Healey said.

At least 76 veterans at the Soldier’s Home died of COVID-19 during the pandemic last spring. Dozens more, plus 81 staff were sickened by the novel coronavirus. The crisis prompted widespread calls for reform and the formation of a Joint Special Oversight Committee comprised of 17 state legislators. The committee has held four public hearings on the matter.

The arraignments in Hampden Superior Court were held remotely and broadcast on YouTube.

A screen showed the defendants, attorneys, a courtroom clerk and Judge Edward McDonough in various locales — with Walsh and his uncle, former Hampden District Attorney William Bennett, wearing masks in an office space.

While Bennett has represented his nephew in legal proceedings since Walsh’s initial suspension by state officials, Springfield attorney Michael O. Jennings made a fiery argument against pretrial release conditions proposed by Healey’s office.

Those included barring Walsh and Clinton from applying for jobs at long-term care facilities; no-contact orders between the defendants, families and alleged victims in the case; and potential travel restrictions.

Jennings told the judge his client would not consent to any of them, unless McDonough ordered the restrictions.

“It has to do with perception. There’s enough bad perception in this case already. That’s why we don’t consent to it,” Jennings said. “It’s hard to imagine any such job would be offered to Mr. Walsh at this point and he hasn’t applied for any ... so what’s the implication? That he’s a danger?”

Jennings added that several family members of veterans at the Soldiers' Home have independently reached out to Walsh to lend their support.

“And he thanked them,” Jennings said. “Nobody feels worse about this, other than the families, than Mr. Walsh does.”

Walsh has been excoriated by state officials, including Gov. Charlie Baker, who ordered an independent review of the outbreak by Boston attorney Mark Pearlstein. The lawyer’s report, made public in late June, painted a portrait of a chaotic, misguided response to the outbreak including “catastrophic” decisions by upper management.

Walsh previously responded that the state ignored his early pleas for help on behalf of the patients and staff, later villainizing him as the death toll climbed.

Pearlstein’s report also offered an unflattering review of Clinton’s response, characterizing it as fearful, somewhat apathetic and his explanation to his investigators “not credible."

Boston attorney James Lawson appeared on behalf of Clinton along with lawyer John Lawler. They told McDonough they had no particular objections to the state’s proposed conditions of pretrial release.

During public statements following their indictments, Healey said Clinton and Walsh wielded critical powers over the Soldiers' Home response to the outbreak.

“We charged these two because they were the ultimate decision-makers,” she said.

Walsh, 50, a decorated combat Marine, was hired to replace retired Soldiers' Home Superintendent Paul Barabani in 2016. Clinton had been a part-time medical advisor there for several years.

Assistant Attorney General Kaushal Rana characterized the proposed pretrial restrictions as standard.

“These are not particularly onerous conditions,” Rana told McDonough.

Jennings argued that they were, nonetheless, unnecessary to ensure that Walsh shows up to his court appearances.

“This is a man who appears wherever he’s asked. He appeared in Somalia where his unit was very well decorated. He’s appeared in Iraq after 9/11. He led over 500 combat missions in Fallujah and elsewhere,” Jennings said.

“He’s anxious to defend himself against these charges. He’s not a runner. He’ll be here,” he added.

Jennings also objected to the commonwealth’s submission of a “statement of facts” in the case, which he said said was a “poorly disguised press release” from Healey’s office.

Rana told McDonough the statement is a standard practice by his office.

“What is the purpose of filing this at this point? I don’t need something like that for arraignment,” the judge responded.

Rana withdrew the filing for the moment. Consequently, the attorney general’s statement will not make it into the public court record.

In the end, McDonough did not impose bail, nor did he opt to impose the state’s proposed pretrial restrictions.

“I am going to rely on the lawyers as officers of the court to be mindful of your concerns,” he told Rana, offering to convene a hearing if any issues crop up.

“One thing judges have these days is a lot of time,” McDonough said, referring to the pandemic’s impact on regular court business.

Assistant Hampden Superior Court Clerk Lauramarie Sirois set the defendants' next in-court pretrial hearing for March 22.

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