Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 murder of his ex-girlfriend Nancy Argentino.
fter Nancy Argentino died in 1983, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka went on with his life, basking in the fading spotlight of his professional wrestling career.
Rumors of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s involvement in the 23-year-old New York woman’s death lingered for three decades, culminating in a grand jury investigation last year that resulted in homicide charges.
But the 73-year-old wrestler may never face a jury to answer for Argentino’s death. That’s because a Lehigh County judge on Wednesday found that Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka is not mentally fit to assist in his own defense, especially in a case based on 30-year-old allegations.
“Unfortunately, justice suffers when it’s delayed,” Judge Kelly L. Banach said.
Banach listened to four days of expert testimony and lawyers’ arguments, and questioned Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka herself, before finding that Snuka was not competent to stand trial.
She said she sided with defense expert Frank Dattilio, a forensic psychologist who found that Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka suffers from dementia so severe that he’s unaware that he’s been charged with homicide.
The ruling means that the case will be stayed for at least six months. Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka was ordered to return to court Dec. 2 for a review. That cycle could repeat indefinitely, until Snuka’s condition improves or prosecutors drop the charges.
Due to a gag order, lawyers would not answer questions Wednesday.
In her ruling, Banach struck down the prosecution’s charge that Snuka was faking his dementia, a key pillar of its case.
“I don’t believe he’s faking it. I don’t think he’s smart enough to fake it,” Banach said.
After the ruling, Banach denied a motion by Chief Deputy District Attorney Charles Gallagher to have Snuka involuntarily committed to a mental health facility for 60 days.
The judge said she considered numerous factors in her decision, including her interaction with the wrestler in court. In an unusual, almost casual conversational style, the judge asked Snuka if he understood what murder was and what he thought should happen to someone who kills another.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” Snuka replied, frowning.
When the judge asked Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka what should happen to him if he did something wrong, Snuka said he believed he should be punished.
“I’m up here trying to tell you the truth,” he told her.
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka told the judge he could not recall his lawyer’s name, but said he would listen to him in court.
In explaining her decision Wednesday, the judge said she found Snuka “vacant” and “leadable,” and believed that any attorney who put him on the stand would face accusations of being ineffective counsel.
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, of Camden County, N.J., was charged in September with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. A county grand jury last year determined that Snuka repeatedly assaulted Argentino, his mistress, at the former George Washington Motor Lodge in Whitehall Township and then left her in bed to die.
The charges came to light after a 2013 Morning Call investigation on the 30th anniversary of Argentino’s death that uncovered a previously unseen autopsy report that concluded the case should have been investigated as a homicide.
Banach announced her decision following several hours of testimony. Snuka’s wife, Carole, took the stand Wednesday morning and described her husband as a man so “oblivious” to his surroundings that when he was arrested last year, he thought he was making an appearance for sports fans.
“They were all so happy to see me,” Carole Snuka recalled her husband saying after he was released on bail. “They all wanted my autograph.”
She also detailed her husband’s declining mental health at home, saying he’s lost his ability to drive and cook, two things he used to enjoy. She said she watched his once “photographic” memory deteriorate to a point where he gets locked in their car because he can’t operate the door handles.
Carole Snuka said videos and advertisements that prosecutors used to that show Jimmy Snuka was still active on the wrestling circuit, even as the grand jury was investigating him, do not tell a full story. Wrestling makes her husband happy, she said, and she only books events with promoters who will keep him safe in the ring.
“He’s a man. I’m not going to emasculate him by telling him he can’t do it,” she said.
Snuka’s wife noted that he was not even required to show up to some of the events in the ads presented by prosecutors.
“Promoters will book him because his name draws,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean he’s there.”
In finding Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka incompetent to stand trial, the judge agreed that he was substantially mentally impaired to the point that he did not understand court proceedings and was unable to assist in his defense.
Snuka’s attorney, Robert Kirwan, argued that prosecution expert Dr. John O’Brien, a forensic psychiatrist, was wrong in assuming the wrestler never sustained a concussion during his 40-year career.
Kirwan held up Snuka’s 2012 autobiography — a prosecution exhibit — and pointed to the cover photo of Snuka executing his high-flying signature move, the “Superfly Splash.”
“You do that over and over again … you’re going to get your bell rung a few times,” Kirwan said.
The prosecution, Kirwan said, ignored Snuka’s dementia like “the big white elephant in room.”
“People with dementia have good days and bad days,” Kirwan said. “One day you think they’ve turned the corner and the next they don’t know who you are. How can I get my client to participate when he forgets who I am day to day?”
Gallagher, the prosecutor, pointed out in his closing that Snuka is able to remember details of his time with Argentino. He said Snuka told the same story to police in 1986 that he gave to the co-author of his book in 2012, and to doctors last year.
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka may have some cognitive problems, Gallagher said, but he’s not so far gone that he can’t face a jury.
“He comprehends what we’re here for and he communicates with his attorney,” Gallagher said. “What I believe this means is communication plus cooperation equals competency.”
Argentino’s family was not in court Wednesday. The gag order, which Banach declined to lift after the hearing, prevents them from commenting.
Carole Snuka wept and hugged her son when the judge announced her decision. Several other family members, including Snuka’s ex-wife Sharon, smiled and grasped hands. All declined to speak as they left the courthouse in Allentown.
Snuka remains free on bail. Kirwan told the judge that Snuka and his wife lost their home due to financial problems, and want to move to Florida to live with Snuka’s son.
Prosecutors did not object, and the judge granted the request.