Friday, October 22, 2010

James F. Neal, Legal Lion and Legendary Litigator, Dead at 81

Posted By on Fri, Oct 22, 2010 at 12:16 PM

Jimmy Hoffa once said Jim Neal was "the most vicious prosecutor who ever lived." Of course, Hoffa was on the wrong end of a U.S. Justice Department investigation headed by Robert F. Kennedy, and Neal was Kennedy's right hand. But even Neal's colleagues would have been inclined to agree with the Teamster boss, whom Neal successfully convicted of jury tampering after a roller-coaster of a trial.

Neal's death yesterday of cancer at age 81 ends one of the great legal careers of the century. At his most aggressive, Neal was described as a bantam rooster in the court, his tenacity softened only by his Tennessee drawl. But as a 1974 Time article pointed out, his strength was not an orator's eloquence but intensive pre-trial preparation.

Neal was a Vanderbilt Law grad as well as a star blocking back at the University of Wyoming, where he was known for zeroing in on substantially larger players with undaunted ferocity. That trait would become a hallmark of his legal career, for the prosecution as well as the defense. The more seemingly hopeless the case, the harder Neal's victories rang.

In 1972, Neal represented Bobby Wayne Wallace, who was accused of helping George Giffe, a deeply unhinged Nashville club owner, kidnap Giffe's wife and hijack a plane. The ordeal ended in Jacksonville with a double murder-suicide. The bizarre incident was splashed across the national news, eventually becoming the country's first air piracy case to go to trial. Against all odds and expectations, with Neal in his corner, Wallace was acquitted on all counts.

The very next year, Neal was appointed chief counsel by Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Among those Neal brought down were top White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, who were found guilty of charges associated with the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up.

When an exploding 1973 Ford Pinto incinerated a car-load of teenage girls in 1978, a part-time Indiana DA filed reckless homicide charges against the car giant, claiming a design flaw caused their deaths. He found himself up against the Watergate conqueror, a staff of 80 and a war chest said to contain $1 million. At stake was nothing less than a flood of punitive damages should Ford be found guilty.

The prosecutor set out to prove Ford knew the Pinto's gas tank would rupture in a rear-end collision. Neal was successful in getting much of the prosecutor's evidence ruled inadmissible. The trump card fell when Neal presented to the jury that one of the dying girls said the Pinto had been stopped, making the collision much more violent than previously thought. Ford was acquitted.

In 1981, Neal represented Dr. George Nichopoulos, Elvis Presley's personal physician, after the megastar's death. The prosecution had charged "Dr. Nick" with overprescribing drugs to Presley as well as Jerry Lee Lewis. Neal said he had found, toward the end, that Nichopoulos was feeding Presley placebos to slow his consumption. And this is where his methodical, no-stone-unturned approach came into play: Neal showed that the prosecution's lead expert — a self-proclaimed well-published expert in the field — had not, in fact, been published anywhere. Dr. Nick was acquitted.

Neal was a major player in some of the highest-profile cases of the century. It was Neal who defended director John Landis in 1987 on voluntary manslaughter charges, after the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. When the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil on the Alaskan shore, in 1989, Neal was called in to defend the embattled company.

I got to spend some time with Neal working on a story. We met for drinks, and he recounted some of his legal victories with relish, savoring a plump cigar clenched in his teeth. Anyone who sought to understand the workings of power — whether to muster them or to defy them — eventually made their way to Neal's door. With Jim Neal's passing, the defense finally rests.

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