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James F. Neal, who prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa and defended Exxon, dies at 81

October 22, 2010 |  9:24 am

Neal James F. Neal, who successfully prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa and key Watergate figures and later defended such prominent clients as Exxon Corp. after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, has died. He was 81.

Neal died Thursday night at a Nashville hospital after battling cancer for several months, said his law partner, Aubrey Harwell.

In 1964, Neal successfully prosecuted Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa on jury-tampering charges in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Neal was the special Watergate prosecutor who in 1974 won the convictions of onetime Richard Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell.

He was working as a special assistant to then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy when he secured the government's first conviction against Hoffa -- sending him to prison. Four previous government efforts to convict Hoffa had failed.

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.

A year later, in 1981, he also successfully defended Dr. George Nichopoulos of Memphis, Tenn., against charges that he over-prescribed drugs to Elvis Presley.

After actor Vic Morrow and two others died in 1982 during the filming of the movie "The Twilight Zone," Neal successfully defended director John Landis against charges of voluntary manslaughter in 1987.

He was hired in 1990 to represent Exxon Corp., which was charged with polluting the Alaska shoreline with the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill.

Neal, who grew up on a farm in Tennessee, was a graduate of the University of Wyoming and Vanderbilt University School of Law in Nashville. He received a 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 Senate committee that investigated the federal government's Abscam bribery allegations.

Neal was very animated, slapping people on the back and calling them "pal." But in the courtroom, he fixed a steely gaze. Though intensely competitive, he expressed a liking for many he met in court.

He said in a 1981 Associated Press interview, "Jurors are people. I like people. All kinds of people."

-- Associated Press

Photo: James F. Neal. Credit: Associated Press