James F. Neal

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James Foster Neal

Death: October 21, 2010 (81)
Immediate Family:

Son of Robert Gus Neal and Mary Emmaline Neal

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About James F. Neal



James Foster Neal (September 7, 1928 – October 21, 2010) was an American trial lawyer who prosecuted labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, as well as top officials of the Nixon Administration in the Watergate scandal.

Early life, education, early career

Neal was born on September 7, 1928, in Oak Grove, Tennessee, and grew up on a small tobacco and strawberry farm. Neal attended Sumner County High School in Portland, Tennessee, and played running back on the football team. He graduated from high school in the class of 1946. He attended the University of Wyoming on a football scholarship and was a running back on its 1950 undefeated team. After graduating from college, Neal served for two years in the United States Marine Corps. He graduated first in his law school class at Vanderbilt University Law School in 1957 and also earned a master's degree in tax law from Georgetown University in 1960. Neal then joined a Washington, DC law firm.

Works for RFK, Hoffa prosecutions

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy selected Neal in 1961 to lead a Justice Department investigation of Jimmy Hoffa, who was President of the Teamsters Union and a powerful political figure. After Hoffa's first trial on corruption charges ended in a hung jury, Neal led a second prosecution for jury tampering, which resulted in Hoffa's only federal conviction. According to the Washington Post, Neal took pride in saying "Jimmy Hoffa once called me the most vicious prosecutor who ever lived." Hoffa's prison sentence was later commuted by Richard Nixon. After the Hoffa prosecution, Neal was appointed the United States Attorney for the federal courts in Nashville, Tennessee.

Private practice

In 1966, Neal became a Nashville, Tennessee-based trial attorney who litigated prominent cases around the country. He won an acquittal of Elvis Presley's doctor, George Nichopoulos, who had been tried for improperly dispensing drugs that contributed to the singer's death in 1977. In 1980, Neal won an acquittal for Ford Motor Company when the company was charged with reckless homicide due to the faulty design of its Pinto model car, convincing jurors that the company was not negligent, despite the safety problems experienced with the Pinto. In 1985, Neal successfully defended Governor Edwin Edwards of Louisiana in a trial for racketeering.

Watergate prosecutor, federal service

In 1973, special prosecutor Archibald Cox recruited Neal to investigate the Watergate scandal. Neal negotiated a guilty plea from former White House Counsel John Dean in October 1973,[6] and then represented the prosecution in a 1974 criminal trial where former Attorney General John Mitchell and Presidential aides John D. Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman were convicted of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice on January 1, 1975.

In the 1980s, Neal returned to federal service as a special investigator of the Abscam and Iran-Contra scandals.

Additional high-profile cases

In 1985, Fortune magazine named Neal one of the United States' top trial lawyers. Neal defended film director John Landis in a manslaughter trial resulting from the death of actor Vic Morrow and two children during the 1982 filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Following this success, John Landis cast Neal (and his law partner James F. Sanders) as extras in the 1988 hit movie "Coming to America". Neal represented Exxon Corporation after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

Television actor

In addition to trial litigation, Neal did legal work for a number of Nashville-based country-western entertainers. One of his clients, Johnny Cash, cast him as a lawyer in the 1983 made-for-television movie Murder in Coweta County. Neal also played himself in Watergate, a 1994 television mini-series.


Neal died at the age of 82 on October 21, 2010, in Nashville, Tennessee due to esophageal cancer. He was survived by widow Dianne Ferrell Neal, to whom he had been married for 20 years, son James F. Neal, Jr (Lauren), daughter Julie E. Neal, grandchildren Jaime Drennen, Anne McGarry, James F. Neal III, also step-daughter Sarah Cooper Nickoloff (Christopher), and step-grandchildren, Jackson and Ellie.


James F. Neal, a lawyer who found success in nationally prominent cases on both sides of the legal battlefield, prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa and the Watergate conspirators and defending the Ford Pinto, the Exxon Valdez, the filmmaker John Landis, Elvis Presley’s doctor and Vice President Al Gore, died on Thursday in Nashville. He was 81.

The cause was complications of esophageal cancer, said his wife, Dianne Ferrell Neal.

A Southerner who was described as having a country affect but a big-city swagger. “I remember hearing someone say he could strut sitting down,” his wife said. Mr. Neal was not long out of law school when he joined the Justice Department in 1961 as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

In that capacity he led the government team that tried Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters union, for accepting illegal payments from a trucking company, a case that ended in a hung jury. The government indicted Hoffa for jury tampering in the case, and Mr. Neal, again leading the prosecution, won a conviction in 1964.

In May 1973, Mr. Neal was in private practice in Nashville when he was asked by the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to join his staff. He worked with Mr. Cox until October 1973, when John W. Dean III, President Richard M. Nixon’s former legal counsel, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and agreed to be a prosecution witness in the cover-up trial of five Watergate figures.

Mr. Cox was subsequently ordered dismissed by Nixon, and his successor, Leon Jaworski, asked Mr. Neal to return for the cover-up case.

Mr. Neal led the prosecution, handling the questioning of the government’s key witness, Mr. Dean, and on Jan. 1, 1975, a jury convicted four men: John N. Mitchell, the former attorney general; H. R. 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 of covering up the illegal activities of the committee to re-elect Nixon, which had come to light when a White House team of burglars was caught breaking into Democratic offices at the Watergate complex.

“It’s no fun casting stones,” Mr. Neal said in his summation to the jury. “This government that’s represented here does not cast stones with joy or happiness. But to keep society going, stones must be cast. People must be called to account.”

James Foster Neal was born on a small farm in Oak Grove, in northeastern Tennessee, where his parents, Robert Gus and Emma Neal, grew tobacco and strawberries. He played football at the University of Wyoming and, after graduating, enlisted in the Marines.

He graduated from Vanderbilt University Law School and studied tax law at Georgetown. After the Hoffa prosecution he was appointed United States attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, a position he held for two years.

In 1980, he successfully defended the Ford Motor Company from charges of reckless homicide. The case, brought by the State of Indiana, stemmed from an accident in which three young women were killed after the Ford Pinto they were driving was rear-ended and the gas tank exploded.

The prosecution contended that Ford knew the gas tanks of the Pinto, a popular subcompact, were defective. It was the first criminal prosecution of an American corporation whose allegedly defective products led to a death.

Mr. Neal’s strategy was to defend Ford’s initiatives on product safety and accountability. The strategy worked; jurors said they concluded that the Pinto was unsafe but that they were not persuaded that the company had been negligent.

Mr. Neal’s other prominent cases included a successful defense, in 1981, of Dr. George Nichopoulos, who had been accused of overprescribing addictive drugs to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. In 1987, in a trial that put Hollywood in an unwanted spotlight, Mr. Neal won an acquittal for the film director John Landis, one of five people who had been accused of involuntary manslaughter after a helicopter crash on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” caused the deaths of the actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shinn Chen.

Mr. Neal was hired in 1990 to represent the Exxon Corporation after a spill by the oil tanker Valdez befouled Prince William Sound and the Alaska shoreline. The company paid about $1 billion in compensation and punitive damages.

In 1997, Mr. Neal was hired by Vice President Gore, who was being investigated by the Justice Department for his fund-raising activities on behalf of the Democratic Party. The questions stemmed from Mr. Gore’s attendance at a luncheon at a Buddhist monastery near Los Angeles in 1996; his presence at a number of White House coffees in 1995 and 1996, which may or may not have required attendees to contribute to the Democratic Party; and his use of his White House office to make fund-raising telephone calls.

The legal inquiries persisted until 2000, when, during Mr. Gore’s presidential campaign, Attorney General Janet Reno declined to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue the case against him.

Mr. Neal’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, a lawyer who was legal counsel to Gov. Ned McWherter of Tennessee and whom he married in 1990, he is survived by two sisters, Lila Ligon, of Nashville, and Dorothy Boozer, of Gallatin, Tenn.; a son, James, known as Flash, of Nashville; a daughter, Julie, of Chapel Hill, N.C., a stepdaughter, Sarah Cooper Nickoloff, of Nashville; and five grandchildren.

Asked to describe her husband, Mrs. Neal said, “He was just so competitive,” a reprise of the sentiment offered by his law partner, Aubrey B. Harwell Jr., 36 years ago.

“Flip him to see who buys lunch, and he loses,” Mr. Harwell said about Mr. Neal. “The day’s a disaster.”

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James F. Neal's Timeline

September 7, 1929
October 21, 2010
Age 81