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James F. Neal, 81; lawyer won courtroom battles against Jimmy Hoffa and Watergate conspirators

FILE - Nashville, Tenn., attorney James F. Neal, is shown in an undated photo. Neal, who successfully prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa and Watergate figures and later defended high-profile clients, including Exxon Corp. after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, died Thursday, Oct. 21 in Nashville. He was 81. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey,File)
FILE - Nashville, Tenn., attorney James F. Neal, is shown in an undated photo. Neal, who successfully prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa and Watergate figures and later defended high-profile clients, including Exxon Corp. after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, died Thursday, Oct. 21 in Nashville. He was 81. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey,File) (Mark Humphrey - AP)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; 10:19 PM

James F. Neal, one of the nation's leading trial lawyers, who sent Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa to prison and later won convictions against top officials of the Nixon administration in the Watergate coverup trial, died Oct. 21 of esophageal cancer at a hospital in Nashville. He was 81.

Mr. Neal, who mesmerized courtrooms with his courtly manner and Tennessee drawl, was at the center of many renowned trials, beginning in the early 1960s when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy chose him to lead a Justice Department investigation of Hoffa for corruption.

As a special prosecutor in the 1970s, Mr. Neal confronted the Nixon White House in the Watergate coverup trial, resulting in the convictions of former attorney general John N. Mitchell and two of President Richard M. Nixon's closest advisers, John D. Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman.

Later, from his base in Nashville, Mr. Neal handled prominent cases throughout the country, compiling a remarkable record of legal victories. In 1985, Fortune magazine named him of the country's five best trial lawyers.

He won an acquittal for Ford Motor Co. in 1980, when it was charged with reckless homicide over the design of its Pinto car. He successfully defended Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in a racketeering trial in 1985.

Mr. Neal handled the defense for Exxon after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. He won an acquittal for Elvis Presley's doctor, George Nichopoulos, who was charged with dispensing drugs that contributed to the singer's death in 1977.

He defended director John Landis when he was accused of manslaughter after actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed in a 1982 accident while making "Twilight Zone: The Movie."

"Jim was viewed by some as the go-to lawyer for corporations and for people in trouble," his longtime law partner Aubrey Harwell said Friday. "He had a tremendous ability to communicate across the spectrum, rich and poor, black and white. He brought tremendous credibility with him."

Mr. Neal was working for a Washington law firm when he joined the Justice Department in 1961 and began looking into corruption charges against Hoffa and the Teamsters union. When an initial trial ended in a hung jury, Mr. Neal led a second prosecution against the union boss for jury tampering. In the 1964 trial in Chattanooga, Tenn., Hoffa flashed obscene hand gestures at Mr. Neal under the table.

"Jimmy Hoffa once called me the most vicious prosecutor who ever lived," Mr. Neal later said, as a matter of pride. He won the only federal conviction against Hoffa, whose prison sentence was later commuted by Nixon.

In 1973, special prosecutor Archibald Cox summoned Mr. Neal back to Washington to investigate the Watergate coverup that led to the president's resignation the next year.

Mr. Neal won a guilty plea from former White House counsel John W. Dean in 1973 and then took on members of Nixon's inner circle the next year. Washington was riveted by the coverup trial in late 1974, in which Mitchell, Ehrlichman, Haldeman and two other former White House aides were charged with conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.


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