Two days after the piece below went live, I learned that Judge Shenkin, on December 15, already had denied Villa’s motion for summary judgment. The court appears not to have done an immediate electronic filing of the signed order, and transmitted copies to the parties in the postal mail.
So now all eyes turn to next May’s trial on the merits.
To be absolutely clear, Shenkin’s order was issued five days prior to publication. No one should get the idea in their head that the order was any kind of reaction to what I wrote (and any such notion obviously would be a stretch in the first place). My view continues to be that Martin v. Villa walks like a SLAPP duck, quacks like a SLAPP duck, and is a SLAPP duck. Everything below still obtains on the need to slap down this SLAPP
By not issuing an opinion or even a comment in connection with the denial of the summary judgment motion, Shenkin seems to have provided counter-evidence to the suggestion that he will prove to be a different kind of judge than the two previous ones in this case. Like readers, I’ll be watching to see what 2022 brings.
by Irvin Muchnick
The end of another long year of their litigation is a good time to reset what is happening with the battle – carrying important First Amendment implications – between James B. Martin, corrupt and six-times-elected (and four-times-unopposed) district attorney of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, and Bill Villa, a public critic of him.
The reason this story became part of Concussion Inc.’s portfolio in the first place, six years ago, is that Martin, as assistant DA in 1983 and as DA for decades thereafter, was a key figure in the failed murder prosecution of the late WWE star Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. As the writer who first unearthed the fishy details of how Martin’s predecessor, later Pennsylvania state senior judge, William Platt – in conjunction with a lying police detective, Gerald Procanyn – dropped the ball on busting Snuka in the death of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino in a motel room, I found resonance in the tale of Martin’s legal harassment of Villa.
And I’ve had lots of room to run with this ball “in space,” as they say, since the Morning Call in Allentown and brethren mainstream news media in the market where these scenarios unfolded have committed journalistic malpractice in their own spotty coverage.
The nexus of the Snuka case and Martin’s now-teetering defamation lawsuit against Villa is the extreme nepotism and corruption of the criminal justice system in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Before reviewing Martin v. Villa and what, in my analysis, is prospective (if belated) good legal news for Villa, I want to direct readers to the eight headline links at the bottom of this post. They comprise a fairly comprehensive overview of this site’s years of coverage. You can also plug “Bill Villa” into the search bar at the Archives page.
In 2006, Villa’s 25-year-old daughter Sheena was riding in the front passenger seat of a sports utility vehicle, next to a drunk-driving ne’er do well. Robert LaBarre, son of prominent local lawyer Donald L. LaBarre Jr. Ignoring the extended screams of Sheena and another passenger, the younger LaBarre was doing 85 when he crashed into an oak tree. Sheena was killed. LaBarre was found to have a preposterous blood-alcohol level of .24, three times the legal limit.
Released on $0 bail, LaBarre went AWOL to Belize for ten days, and faced no consequences when he returned with a nice Caribbean tan.
The next year, Martin’s office allowed the now 28-year-old to plead guilty to a charge of vehicular homicide while DUI. Bill Villa had cited multiple precedents in Pennsylvania cases to support his requested charge of third-degree murder, based on the malice LaBarre had exhibited in the act. Absent the other factors I’ll explain next, the difference in sentencing could have been a few months of work release in county jail, as opposed to a minimum three years in the state penitentiary.
The DA scheduled a plea hearing days before the published trial date, without even notifying Villa. However, Villa got an anonymous tip about the hearing and managed to show up with dozens of supporters. Citing the stack of letters he had received from the public, as well as the 13 counts of charges below vehicular homicide, plus the chilling narrative of the criminal event, the judge did wind up sentencing LaBarre to 5.5 to 12 years in state prison.
Villa was not only aggrieved, but also understandably enraged by the actions of the DA. An advertising agency professional, he had some multimedia chops, as well as a colorful communications style, and he put them to use at a website (“Lehigh Valley Somebody: Verifiable Facts, Truth, Consequences,” http://bloggingdottie.blogspot.com/) lambasting Martin for his overall record of softball prosecution of vehicular homicide, especially when the defendant was well-connected. With text reporting, graphics links, and flow charts, Villa also painted a devastating portrait of his region’s mutual backscratching and the revolving-door employment patterns of assistant DA’s, judges, and – surprise! – Morning Call reporters. His harsh takes on Martin crystallized in a series of 11 interviews on local radio station WAEB in 2014. (You can listen to them for yourselves at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QORckVcfpnM&list=PL55m7OZjE5pIauyaEgQt6K48Ym5e2lyr9.)
In 2015 Martin sued Villa, radio host Bobby Gunther Walsh, and WAEB (which is owned by iHeart Media Inc.) for defamation. It was a move patently destructive of principles of free speech and public official accountability. Outrage is too tame a characterization. Though Martin claimed to be acting not as the DA but in his capacity as a private citizen in suing Villa, Martin has never explained utilizing county resources in the case. It is simple to do a rough calculation of what must be six-figure legal fees associated with the lawsuit. And the fingerprints of the DA’s office are all over years of groundless character attacks against Villa and his attorney, and even the manufacture of criminal allegations against Villa.
In 2019 iHeart came to a secret settlement with Martin as the company was emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That document, curiously, remains under seal. It is plausible that iHeart paid Martin $1 or some similar nuisance sum – in effect, closing the loop on a surrender by plaintiff-DA Martin. Yet the local media remain essentially mute.
Martin pressed on with the case against Villa. Martin’s early appeal of a procedural ruling (where his pal and former boss, predecessor DA Platt, was then sitting) already had taken up most of a year. Since none of the nine Lehigh County judges could legally hear the case of an officer of the courts who was before them on official business on a daily basis, the case was assigned successively to two slow-walking judges outside the jurisdiction. The first one, John L. Braxton, left to pursue a senior judge position. The second, Linda Wallach-Miller, bowed out last year, citing “a conflict.”
Now a third outside judge, Robert J. Shenkin of nearby Chester County, is presiding, and he may mean business. Shenkin has set a May 16, 2022, trial date for Martin v. Villa, which would be nullified if he first grants Villa’s pending motion for summary judgment – that is, to toss the case on the grounds that it is without merit. At a recent hearing, Judge Shenkin signaled singular due diligence from the bench when he said that, in addition to reviewing the transcripts of the Villa-Walsh interviews on WAEB, he wanted to listen to the actual audio.
If Martin’s suit does get thrown out, or if it goes to trial and he loses, then a formidable civil litigator in Philadelphia, Clifford E. Haines, has told the court he is poised to represent Villa in a counterclaim against Martin for the misery the DA has inflicted in nearly a decade of retaliatory abuse of process.
There is a well-known term for what Martin has done. This is a “SLAPP,” for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. SLAPP’s are frivolous court actions by powerful people and institutions whose only real purpose is to heap legal defense costs and intolerable hassle on people exercising their First Amendment rights. The goal is to cow them into silence.
Understand that a public figure such as Martin has no case against Villa under slander and libel law simply because something incorrect might have been uttered (and I hasten to emphasize that there is no showing that anything Villa said about Martin was even incorrect). Martin must establish that any such falsity was knowingly false when it was said or published, and was rendered with reckless disregard for the truth. In the face of Villa’s voluminous research and primary-source material, that burden seems to me, and to First Amendment experts, to be an insurmountably high bar.
But SLAPPers don’t give a fig about evidence or burdens. They only want to impose extreme payback and punishment on their targets. SLAPPers seek to drain their enemies’ bank accounts until they lose the capacity or will to express themselves and fight back.
The Morning Call has shown no interest in the story of the county’s long-time DA’s SLAPP, nor in Villa’s flashpoint critique of the office’s history of drunk-driving case management. In a 2017 email exchange (reproduced at http://muchnick.net/callpublisheremails.pdf), I asked the Morning Call’‘s then publisher, Robert York, about all this. York’s response should be reproduced in a chapter of Newspapering for Dummies. He said his outlet wasn’t covering Martin’s SLAPP as a SLAPP, not even as an allegation of same, because … get this … the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania “has a very narrow anti-SLAPP statute mostly used in enforcement of environmental issues.” York blew right past the tenet that the story needed purposeful coverage precisely in service of highlighting the need to strengthen the commonwealth’s anti-SLAPP statutes. He did so even while acknowledging that a bill seeking to do just that was circulating in the legislature.
In 2019 a neighboring newspaper with far more clout, the Philadelphia Inquirer, finally broke the embargo on writing that Martin v. Villa walked like a SLAPP duck, quacked like a SLAPP duck, and was in fact a SLAPP duck. Unfortunately, the Inquirer article, a Michelangelo-like year and a half in the making, was at best a foul tip, if not a swing and a miss, because it buried the local case inside rambling pedantry about national SLAPP scenarios. There were almost as many words devoted to the libel suit by California Congressman Devin Nunes to close down a Twitter parody account as there were of local cad Martin’s years of harassment of Villa.
Evidence that the bark of the Inquirer headline (“Court-assisted terrorism …”) was better than the bite of the piece below it was capped by a quote from a designated expert, Temple University law professor David Kairys, who was identified as a “civil rights civil attorney [sic].” Rather than criticizing Martin on SLAPP grounds, Kairys talked political optics and PR, and in the process only revictimized Villa. “It’s a little hard to understand why they” – (who are “they”?) – would go to all this trouble for a guy who’s obviously distraught,” Kairys said.
I’ve saved the second worst for last. Whenever a countersuit by Villa and attorney Haines achieves liftoff, some of it will involve a pair of crackpot cousins with the last name of Anthony. The first, James T. Anthony, is a Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas judge. The second, Jeffrey Anthony, is a cousin, through marriage, of both Judge Anthony and Bill Villa. (Judge Anthony and Villa are not related.)
Starting in 2009, Judge Anthony, who loves to shoot his mouth off, until he doesn’t, commiserated with Villa over Martin’s bullying, playing favorites, and abuse of power. Anthony said much the same to me in a 2017 email exchange.
To Villa, Anthony said, “I would risk my career and public scorn exposing a disgraceful human being like Jim Martin who, in my opinion, abuses his authority. He fools and intimidates many, but not those who know him best and have the courage to stand up to him.”
To me, the judge said, “I don’t play whisper down the alley when it comes to Jim Martin. Among other things, he’s a bully and I’ve put him in his place more than once.”
Somewhere along the way, though, this self-styled courageous jurist, who had been talking out of school, reconsidered. In an October 10, 2017, email, Anthony told Villa, “I will not be participating in your case,” and said not to contact him again.
What happened? Did Team Martin take the judge aside and impress upon him the error of his ways and their implications for his professional future in Lehigh County?
All we know for sure is that, by then, the judge’s wingnut cousin, Jeffrey Anthony, was on the scene providing an affidavit for Martin full of smears against Villa. These included Villa’s three-decade-old DUI.
The next thing Villa knew, Jeffrey Anthony’s smear campaign against him, his attorney, and his employer – via streams of letters (including to the SLAPP case’s presiding judges and Villa’s insurance company), endless social media rants, and even contacts with the public school employer of Villa’s wife Angie – went so far as to trigger an investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general. Not an investigation of Jeffrey Anthony, but of Bill Villa. Martin has cleverly recused himself throughout Jeffrey Anthony’s antics. The AG’s “criminal investigation” closed with no charges.
It is more than fair to suggest that the hand of SLAPP plaintiff and DA Martin has been behind all the interventions of “spontaneous” third-party information provider Jeffrey Anthony. And I, personally, would not be surprised if it came out that Jeffrey Anthony had been set in motion by the loose cannon, now hiding, Judge James Anthony.
Let’s hope that Judge Shenkin, in his upcoming summary judgment ruling, decides to euthanize this specious case once and for all. Let’s hope, too, that Bill Villa, twice let down by the local courts’ coddling of a powerful public official, can achieve full vindication and get properly compensated for what he has been put through in exposing the evil ways and means of Lehigh County DA James B. Martin.
JULY 2, 2013: “Pennsylania District Attorney Defends Detective Who Lied in 1992 About Jimmy Snuka Homicide Investigation,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=7777
OCTOBER 14, 2015: “Why the Allentown Morning Call Is Part of the Jimmy Snuka Murder Story – In a Bad Way,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=10440
MARCH 15, 2016: “Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Trial Delay Combines With District Attorney’s Defamation Lawsuit to Expose Rot at Core of Lehigh County Criminal Justice,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=10826
SEPTEMBER 1, 2017: “Allentown Morning Call, After Botching Coverage of Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Case, Botches Coverage of Prosecutor James Martin’s SLAPP Suit Against Critic Bill Villa,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=12181
OCTOBER 18, 2017: “Judge Who Is Loose-Cannon Critic of Lehigh County District Attorney Martin Breaks Promise to Testify Against Him in SLAPP Suit,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=12243
JANUARY 4, 2019: “James Martin, Pennsylvania District Attorney Whose Office Screwed Up the Murder Prosecution of Wrestler Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka – And Covered Up It and Other Cases – Runs For an Unprecedented Sixth Term,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=13540
JUNE 5, 2019: “Philadelphia Inquirer Finally Breaks the Embargo on Coverage of Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin’s ‘SLAPP’ Suit Against a Citizen-Journalist Critic,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=13886
APRIL 26, 2020: “How Jimmy Snuka Got Away With Murder. How the Allentown Morning Call Helped Cover Up the Historical and Ongoing Corruption in Lehigh County Criminal Justice. Here’s the Story VICE TV’s ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ Was Afraid to Tell,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=14447