NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Outside the courtroom, James F. Neal had an amiable, backslapping way with friends and foes alike. Inside the chamber, the face of one of America’s greatest trial lawyers often became fixed in a steely gaze.
The attorney who regularly grabbed national headlines – whether prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa or key Watergate figures, or defending Elvis Presley’s doctor or the Exxon Corp. after the Alaska oil spill – died Thursday night. He was 81.
Law partner Aubrey Harwell said Friday that Neal died at a Nashville hospital after a monthslong battle against cancer.
In the words of Fred Thompson, already a lawyer in real life before he became one on TV, “Jim Neal was the greatest trial lawyer of his time.”
For former Vice President Al Gore, Neal was a “brilliant attorney” and close friend. “As a prosecutor, he served our nation with brilliance and dedication at a time when his skill was greatly needed by the American people,” Gore said in a statement.
And prosecute, by all accounts, was something Neal did well.
The government had tried four times to convict the Teamsters president Hoffa before Neal got it done in 1964 in a jury-tampering case. As a special prosecutor, Neal later put Watergate conspirators and Nixon aides John Mitchell, Robert Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.
And not only prosecute.
In private practice, Neal successfully defended Ford Motor Co. against reckless homicide charges in Indiana after the gas tank of a 1973 Ford Pinto exploded, killing the car’s driver.
In 1981, he successfully defended Dr. George Nichopoulos of Memphis against charges that he overprescribed drugs to the late rock ‘n’ roll idol Presley.
Neal’s rise to prominence began in 1964. As a special assistant to then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Neal succeeded in convicting Hoffa, sending him to prison.
In private practice, Neal developed a reputation for his dogged defense of clients facing a tide of adverse public opinion.
“If you got in serious in trouble, that’s who you wanted,” said George Barrett, a prominent civil rights attorney and classmate of Neal’s in law school at Vanderbilt University. “He was a hell of a lawyer.”
After actor Vic Morrow and two children died in 1982 when a helicopter fell on them during filming of the movie “Twilight Zone,” Neal successfully defended director John Landis in 1987 against charges of involuntary manslaughter. At the time, Neal was considered an unusual choice for the high-profile Hollywood case.
No lawyer wins all his cases and neither did Neal.
He was hired in 1990 to represent the Exxon Corp., which was charged with polluting the Alaska shoreline with the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill. The company settled for what was then a record $1 billion and pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors.
Neal, who grew up on a Tennessee farm, was a graduate of the University of Wyoming and Vanderbilt University School of Law in Nashville. He received his Master of Law degree from Georgetown University in Washington.
He was U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee from 1964 to 1966. Neal then entered private practice and in 1973 was called to Washington to become chief trial lawyer for the Watergate special prosecutor’s office.
In 1982, he was chief counsel to a special U.S. Senate committee that investigated the federal government’s Abscam bribery allegations.
Neal was very animated, slapping people on the back and calling them “pal.” In the courtroom he was intensely competitive, but he expressed a liking for many he met in court.
As he told The Associated Press in a 1981 interview, “Jurors are people. I like people. All kinds of people.”
Associated Press writers Joe Edwards and Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report.