A judge dropped all charges Tuesday against WWE Hall of Fame wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, who was charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of his former girlfriend Nancy Argentino in 1983.
Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Judge Kelly Banach determined that Snuka was incompetent to stand trial based on medical records and testimony provided by his defense attorney, Robert Kirwan II.
Snuka, 74, has been diagnosed with dementia and showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to Kirwan. He went into home hospice care in October and was moved to in-hospital hospice care at Broward Medical North near his home in Florida on December 17.
Kirwan filed a petition in February in which he asked the judge to rule Snuka incompetent to stand trial. The court held a four-day competency hearing in June, and the judge let six months pass in order to see whether his condition improved or worsened.
At an unscheduled hearing Tuesday, Banach ordered all charges against Snuka dismissed. “The court is satisfied that the defendant remains incompetent and the Court is satisfied that the defendant will not regain competence and it would be unjust to resume the prosecution,” the court order said.
Snuka was charged in September 2015, 32 years after Argentino’s death. She was found unresponsive in a room at the George Washington Motor Lodge in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on May 10, 1983. Snuka called the paramedics, but once they arrived, he was gone. Argentino was pronounced dead a few hours later.
Snuka’s version of what happened that night varied, according to Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin. He claimed that Argentino fell as they were “fooling around” outside the hotel room and that she slipped and hit her head as the two were “clowning around” by the side of a highway.
In light of the judge’s actions Tuesday, “we are considering our options and will decide at the appropriate time what action we will take,” Leigh County District Attorney Executive Aide Megan Wieand said.
Argentino’s family won a wrongful death lawsuit against Snuka in 1985, but authorities didn’t charge him in the death. It wasn’t until his 2012 memoir, “Superfly: The Jimmy Snuka Story,” was published that Argentino’s family contacted Martin and asked his team to examine the book. Excerpts were presented to a grand jury, which decided to press charges.
“I was convinced that there was zero chance (the district attorney’s office) would be successful from the beginning,” Kirwan said. “We were very confident that this would never result in anything other than dismissal.”
Snuka was famous for his “Superfly Splash,” a wrestling move in which he would stand on the ring’s top rope and vault off to land face-down on an opponent who lay prone on the ring floor.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, has become a concern for many athletes in contact sports. It is an Alzheimer’s-like neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated hits to the head. Nearly 100 former professional football players have been diagnosed with CTE, as well as former WWE wrestlers Jon Rechner, aka Balls Mahoney, and Brian Knighton, aka Axl Rotten.
Snuka also suffered from a bout of stomach cancer before he was charged in 2015. He was diagnosed in July 2014, and he had intensive surgery in which three-quarters of his stomach, some lymph nodes and part of his large intestine were removed, according to Kirwan.
During the competency hearing, a doctor testified that anesthesia can worsen a person’s dementia, causing their symptoms to be more noticeable and advance at an alarming rate, Kirwan said.
CTE cannot be diagnosed without a postmortem examination of a person’s brain, but the defense argued that Snuka exhibits signs of the disease based on outward symptoms and a series of MRIs taken over the course of two years.
Snuka is one of 50 former wrestlers named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the WWE, filed in July, for long-term brain damage they contend was incurred during their careers with the company.