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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?