Start player for Always Elvis Radio

News createt: 28-10-2010

James F. Neal died on Thursday in Nashville He was 81


Bookmark and Share

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 1971, Mr. Neal was a founding partner of the Nashville firm of Neal & Harwell, and as a defense lawyer he became much sought after in high-profile cases.

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.”

A version of this article appeared in print on October 23, 2010, on page A22 of the New York edition.