NewsCrime World

Wrestling legend too ill to face trial over death of girlfriend, court hears

Crime WorldBy Sunday World
Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka
Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka

Former US wrestler Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka has dementia and cannot stand trial over the death of his girlfriend more than three decades ago, a psychologist has told a court.

Snuka's severe mental impairment has been caused by taking many blows to the head during his long career and also stems from a history of abusing alcohol and cocaine, Dr Frank Dattilio said at the wrestling star's competency hearing.

Snuka was charged with murder and involuntary manslaughter last year in the 1983 death of 23-year-old Nancy Argentino, who was from New York. Snuka's lawyer says he does not understand the charges or even know he was arrested.

Lehigh County Judge Kelly Banach, after hearing from prosecution and defence experts, will decide if Snuka is competent to stand trial.

Snuka, who was in the courtroom for the hearing in Allentown on Friday, has pleaded not guilty and is free on bail. His lawyer, Robert Kirwan, has called Ms Argentino's death an "unfortunate accident".

Dr Dattilio, giving evidence for the defence, said he had a "hell of a time" trying to get even basic background information from Snuka. The psychologist said Snuka cannot assist in his own defence and quoted one of Snuka's doctors as saying he's a "shell of a man".

"This is permanent damage, and he's not likely to be restored to competence," Dr Dattilio said.

He recounted an infamous televised scene from 1984 in which another wrestler, Roddy Piper, broke a coconut over Snuka's head. He said one side of the coconut had been shaved down so that it would easily break, but Piper inadvertently used the hard side of the fruit on Snuka's skull.

The hearing was adjourned until Wednesday, when a prosecution expert will give evidence.

Prosecutors claim Snuka is well enough to stand trial. During cross-examination, they played a video that showed him in the ring as recently as last year - even doing his trademark move, the Superfly Splash, albeit from the second turnbuckle instead of the top.

Another video showed him giving an interview recently in which he appeared lucid and in character.

Snuka is trying to avoid trial in a case that has long been dormant.

The wrestler had been at a World Wrestling Federation taping at the Allentown Fairgrounds, and he told police shortly after Ms Argentino's death that he had returned to their Whitehall Township hotel room to find her unresponsive in bed. She was pronounced dead at a hospital several hours later.

A post-mortem determined she died of traumatic brain injuries and had more than three dozen cuts and bruises, and it concluded her injuries were consistent with being hit with a stationary object. But the investigation went cold, and Snuka continued his high-profile pro wrestling career.

After a 2013 story by The Morning Call newspaper raised questions about the case, Ms Argentino's sisters approached Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, who reopened the investigation.

A grand jury report said Snuka, a Fiji native who lives in Waterford Township, New Jersey, had provided more than half a dozen differing accounts of Ms Argentino's injuries, at first telling paramedics he hit her during an argument outside their hotel room and she struck her head on concrete, then saying to police she slipped and fell during a bathroom break on their way to the hotel.

The grand jury also said it heard evidence that Snuka beat Ms Argentino four months before her death and repeatedly assaulted his wife, Sharon Snuka, in the fall of 1993.

Snuka has long maintained his innocence.

Snuka was known for diving from the ropes in a career that spanned four decades. He was admitted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1996, according to the organisation's website.