“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,” April 26, 2020, https://concussioninc.net/?p=14447
“Good News May Loom in Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Appalling Defamation Lawsuit Against a Critic. And ‘SLAPP’ Target Bill Villa Is Poised to Countersue DA James Martin,” December 20, 2021, https://concussioninc.net/?p=14904
by Irvin Muchnick
For years upon years, James Martin, the long-entrenched district attorney of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania – and a key figure on the team that allowed WWE star Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka to get away with murdering his girlfriend in 1983 – has been harassing a local critic named Bill Villa with a meritless defamation lawsuit. Concussion Inc. has been following it and offering our perspective at intervals.
Martin’s action is a classic, First Amendment-chilling “SLAPP” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). His fig leaf is that he is suing Villa as a private citizen, not as the holder of a powerful public office across decades, whose official actions and inactions are the subject of the defendant’s entirely truthful factual statements, plus strong and legally protected opinions.
From a distance of nearly 3,000 miles, I can blog about constitutional principles and Martin’s unseemly grip on the Lehigh Valley criminal justice system till the cows come home. But the most important work to free Villa from the district attorney’s harassment and to shine a light on the incestuous courthouse culture there remains to be done by the mainstream news media in their own backyard.
That’s why I sat up and took notice recently when Max Mitchell, Pennsylvania bureau chief for Law.com’s The Legal Intelligencer, filed a public information request for records relating to Martin v. Villa: documents illuminating the DA office money and personpower expended on this “private” lawsuit.
Mitchell had picked up on something I’d missed. In 2015 Villa and his co-defendants won a discovery dispute in lower court, which in Pennsylvania is called the Court of Common Pleas. Specifically, the DA’s office was compelled to provide Villa’s attorney with records in certain criminal cases relating to his blog writings and interviews on local radio station WAEB.
That decision was appealed – by the DA’s office. The briefs filed with the appellate court, the Superior Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, were submitted in the name of and signed by James B. Martin, District Attorney.
It’s true enough that Martin and the DA office’s beef with the motion to compel revolved around their very contention – contorted or otherwise – that a bright line separated private citizen Martin and DA Martin. As their statement of the appellate question put it, this was “a civil case in which the office is not a party.”
Whether or not this argument is legitimate, however, the fact that DA office personnel time and money were used on its behalf is self-evident. Seizing on this intuitive connection, Mitchell of The Legal Intelligencer filed what is known there as a Right to Know request – which was denied. Mitchell has submitted an administrative appeal but, in my analysis, stands little chance of getting the denial reversed. In Pennsylvania, the ombudsman agency for public record requests, called the Office of Open Records, is pretty toothless, especially with respect to requests stonewalled by law enforcement agencies, which are largely exempt from the requirements of the Right to Know statute and are given overbroad discretion in those areas where they are not exempt.
Still, it is good to see that at least one well-placed journalist on the ground in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is showing a pulse when it comes to covering Martin v. Villa, along with its narrative implications, in greater depth.
The controller of Lehigh County, Mark Pinsley, has an explicit mission here, by definition. Pinsley told me that he is no friend of DA Martin and added: “As the elected official with oversight of the responsible expenditure of county tax dollars, I fully support Right to Know requests seeking a transparent accounting of what District Attorney office funds and resources have been used in support of DA Martin’s lawsuit against Bill Villa.”
The Legal Intelligencer’s step toward independent enterprise on this story is the first such sign of life in the regional media in three years. See “Philadelphia Inquirer Finally Breaks the Embargo on Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin’s ‘SLAPP’ Suit Against a Citizen-Journalism Critic,” June 5, 2019, https://concussioninc.net/?p=13886.
Let’s hope the current initiative has more focus and follow-through than that 2019 Inquirer article, which, below its chest-pumping headline about “court-assisted terrorism,” morphed into a dull graduate seminar on the entire SLAPP suit genre rather than a targeted critique of Martin’s particular action and harassment tactics against Villa.
The Allentown Morning Call reprinted the Inquirer story, but with respect to Martin – in the Villa matter and over the years – the newspaper at the epicenter of this “all politics is local” circle has proven reliably obedient to the DA’s agenda and interests.
In 2013 the Call published a heavily hyped “cold case” package on the mysterious 1983 death of Nancy Argentino in then World Wrestling Federation performer Jimmy Snuka’s motel room just outside Allentown. Tellingly, the account didn’t even name-check DA James Martin nor mention that he had been an assistant DA under, and protege of, William Platt (who would go on to become a senior state judge), at the time when the office whiffed on prosecuting Snuka despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence of his guilt in a case of, at minimum, involuntary manslaughter.
The Call’s long cold case article also let slide the multiple lies about the original investigation by Gerald Procanyn of the police detective bureau in the Allentown suburb of Whitehall. Procanyn would retire from the Whitehall force and start collecting a municipal pension at the same time he began double-dipping as an investigator for the DA’s office – where his portfolio would include a reexamination of the cold Snuka case for submission to the grand jury: a too-little, too-late feint toward justice. Ultimately, a judge would dismiss charges against the brain-addled, cancer-stricken Snuka on grounds of mental incompetency, just weeks before his death in 2017.
Later that year I had an extended email dialogue with Robert York, then publisher of the Morning Call, in which I quizzed him on what was keeping his newspaper from informing its readers that Martin v. Villa was a vicious and corrupt SLAPP suit designed to chill critics of the DA and of this defamation case defendant’s voluminous findings about local coddling of well-connected drunk drivers, specifically, and about judicial system cronyism, generally.
York’s response to me? “Pennsylvania has a very narrow anti-SLAPP statute mostly used in enforcement of environmental issues.”
Of course, the absence of strong anti-SLAPP provisions in Pennsylvania is the very reason abusive cases such as Martin v. Villa need vigorous, purposeful, non-meandering journalistic coverage. In the wake of The Legal Intelligencer’s probe into the marriage of private litigant Martin and DA Martin, the Allentown Morning Call and the rest of the local media have an opportunity to start doing a better job.