James Neal: Lawyer who put Jimmy Hoffa in jail and prosecuted the perpetrators of the Watergate cover-up

James Neal, a stocky, cigar-chomping ex-Marine, won victories on both sides of the courtroom and was involved in some of America's biggest legal battles. He successfully prosecuted the Teamsters' boss Jimmy Hoffa, as well as key Nixon administration officials for conspiracy during the Watergate scandal. He also acted for the defence for the film-maker John Landis and in the Ford Pinto and Exxon Valdez cases.

He was described by his legal partner Aubrey Harwell as having "a phenomenal ability to communicate with the common man," while his rise from a Tennessee farm to the top of the legal profession was a "classic American success story".

Born in 1929, James Foster Neal grew up during the Depression in the sleepy rural town of Oak Grove in north-eastern Tennessee on a small tobacco and strawberry farm runby his parents, Robert Gus and Emma. He attended Sumner County High School in Portland, playing running back for the football team. Neal said he became interested in law fromthe stories his father would tell about trials at the dinner table after a trip into town.

In 1946 Neal won a football scholarship to the University of Wyoming, where he was part of the college football team that went undefeated in 1950. After graduating, he served for two years in the US Marine Corps, where he was trained to conduct court-martials. Leaving to attend Vanderbilt University Law School, Neal graduated first in his class in 1957 and in 1960 earned a master's degree from Georgetown University in tax law, a career path he intended to pursue.

"I really wanted to make tax law my life," he recalled. "Now that I look back, how boring that would have been." Instead, in 1961, he was hired as a special assistant by the incoming Attorney General Robert Kennedy to investigate charges of corruption in organised labour.

Neal recalled telling Kennedy that he had little experience trying cases, to which the response was, "I have never had any experience being Attorney General either, but we are young and bright and would learn." So Neal led the government team that tried Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union, for accepting illegal payments from a trucking company, a case that ended in a hung jury in 1962.

The government indicted Hoffa for jury tampering in the case, and Neal's reputation for tenacity and brilliance was sealed when, again leading the prosecution, he won a conviction in 1964. Hoffa, who had fended off two dozen indictments, called him "the most vicious prosecutor who ever lived," a slur which Neal considered a badge of honour.

Following the Hoffa conviction, Neal became a US attorney in Tennessee before going into successful private practice in Nashville, where he gained a reputation as a sharp defence lawyer. Then in May 1973, the government came calling again when the special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox asked him to join his staff. Cox, though, was dismissed by Nixon, and Neal later joined his successor, Leon Jaworski.

As head of the legal team, Neal handled the questioning of the government's key witness John W Dean III (Nixon's former legal counsel), who had pleaded guilty to obstruction and agreed to be a prosecution witness. On 1 January 1975 Neal secured the conviction of four men – John Mitchell, the former Attorney General; HR Haldeman, Nixon's former chief of staff; John D Ehrlichman, Nixon's former chief domestic adviser; and Robert C Mardian, a former assistant Attorney General who had attempted to cover up their illegal activities centred on getting Nixon re-elected, which had come to light when a White House team of burglars was caught breaking into Democratic offices at the Watergate complex. At one point Neal was considered for the post of FBI Director during President Jimmy Carter's administration. He also pondered a run for Tennessee governor but instead returned to private practice.

In 1980, the Ford motor company was charged with reckless homicide following an accident in which three young women were killed when their Pinto's fuel tank exploded. Having spent months researching how Ford assembled its cars, Neal successfully defended the company in the case, the first criminal prosecution of an American corporation whose allegedly defective product had led to deaths. Neal convinced the jury that though the Pinto was unsafe, the company was not negligent.

Other successful high-profile defence cases included that of Dr George Nichopoulos, who was accused ofover-prescribing addictive drugs to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others; and in 1987 the film director John Landis, who was one of five people accused of involuntary manslaughter after a helicopter crash on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie that killed the actor Vic Morrow and two child actors.

He also defended the Louisiana Governor, Edwin Edwards, against racketeering charges and former Vice-President Al Gore, who was investigated by the Justice Department for his fund-raising activities on behalf of the Democratic Party. Although much sought after for other high-profile cases, Neal turned them down through lack of time.

His one major defeat was in 1990 representing Exxon, charged with polluting the Alaska shoreline following the the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill. The company finally settled for a record $1bn fine.

Nevertheless, Neal was regarded as one of the best in the business. Fortune magazine recognised him as one of the country's five best trial lawyers. His success was attributed to his hard work and ethical approach, with a demeanour that allowed him to relate to people from the lowest in society to kings and presidents, which played well to juries.

George Barrett, a prominent civil rights attorney said, "He was a true lawyer in the best sense of the word; a great prosecutor and equally a great defence lawyer." Diagnosed with throat cancer in early 2010, Neal died after complications in St. Thomas hospital, Nashville. He is survived by his wife, Dianne, three children and five grand-children.

Martin Childs

James Foster Neal, lawyer; born Oak Grove, Tennessee 7 September 1929; married firstly, secondly, thirdly Dianne Ferrell (one son, one daughter, one stepdaughter); died Nashville, Tennessee 21 October 2010.