The Man Who Prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa and Defended Exxon

James Neal has done it all

Published in 2006 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Henderson on November 2, 2006

At 77, James Neal, a cigar-chewing, gravelly voiced attorney nicknamed “The Bantam Rooster,” has a heck of a lot to crow about.

Exhibit A: The impressive wall of photos in his Neal & Harwell office overlooking Nashville’s downtown riverfront. In this one, a television reporter interviews a young Neal during his prosecution of Jimmy Hoffa. In that one, a pensive Neal, chin in hand, confers with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. In another, Neal flashes an uncharacteristically broad grin — “I look silly in a photograph when I smile,” he insists — as Al Bell, the 6-foot-10-inch former president of Stax Records, lifts the attorney’s trim, 5-foot-8-inch frame off the floor in a triumphant bear hug after a jury hands down a not-guilty verdict on a bank fraud charge.
Justifiably confident — he has, after all, successfully counseled some of the nation’s most high-profile defendants — Neal brandishes the relaxed demeanor of someone who knows he has lived the life he was meant to live. It is early afternoon, and although Neal has eaten neither breakfast nor lunch, he shows no signs of annoyance or fatigue as he loosens his tie and lapses into a detailed recollection of how it all began, his blue eyes frequently spotting a photo or newspaper clipping he feels compelled to point out.
Neal grew up picking tobacco and strawberries on his family’s farm in Portland, Tenn., about 30 miles north of Nashville. “I guess I’m one of the few people who thoroughly enjoyed going to school because it meant I didn’t have to work that day,” he says. With few entertainment options in the pre-television era, Neal’s father would unload his crops in Sumner County, slip into the courthouse to eavesdrop on the legal proceedings, and, that night at home, recount what he’d heard. Neal was fascinated.
In 1952, after earning a football scholarship and graduating with a degree in education from the University of Wyoming, Neal enlisted in the Marine Corps. While waiting for his classes to begin at Parris Island, he worked as a bartender at two Laramie establishments, the Connor Hotel and the Cowboy Bar. The jobs turned out to be a crash course in human nature. One woman, he says, chuckling, was “lovely” when she was sober, but after a few late-night drinks she’d start peeling off her clothes. “I’d chase her around the bar and she’d go into the ladies’ bathroom, and I would then wait a few minutes,” he says. “She’d stay in there, I’d go back behind the bar. Here she’d come out and start to disrobe again.”
Five days after being shipped out to Korea, the colonel of Neal’s staging regiment approached him with an offer: “I hear you want to be a lawyer. How about going to Naval Justice School?” Neal flew to Newport, R.I., where he learned how to defend court-martialed officers. Upon his release from active duty, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University Law School. “I think Vanderbilt gave me a break letting me in because I was not a great student at Wyoming,” Neal says. “They used to say about me that I got all my classes in the morning so that when I got up at noon I was through for the day.” But he had an aptitude for the law –– he graduated first in his class. Neal went on to earn a master’s degree in taxation from Georgetown University Law School, which, he says, “I’ve never used. Shows you what life will do for you.”
And life did have much in store for the young lawyer with the movie-star looks. After John F. Kennedy was elected president (Neal worked on the campaign), Neal’s good friend John Seigenthaler introduced him to Robert Kennedy, who was reportedly looking for “bright young lawyers.” Hired as special assistant to the U.S. attorney general, Neal assumed he’d be assigned to the tax division. But one weekend before JFK’s inauguration, Bobby Kennedy phoned Neal at his home, and before he knew it — “I didn’t know he was gonna push me so fast,” he recalls — Neal was trying cases of organized crime and labor corruption. “I went to Detroit and prosecuted a Hoffa henchman by the name of Ben Dranow, and convicted him. And I went to Detroit and prosecuted a man named Roland McMaster, who was secretary-treasurer of Hoffa’s big local. And then the next thing you know, Bob Kennedy has me investigating and prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa. … I knew it’d be the most notorious case of the time. I said, ‘Bob, I haven’t had any experience to do that.’ And he said, ‘Jim, I haven’t had any experience to be attorney general, either.’”
Neal was barely 30 years old when, in 1962, he prosecuted Hoffa for allegedly taking kickbacks from a Michigan trucking company. The trial ended with a hung jury on Christmas Eve. Before long, word got out that Hoffa had tried to bribe jurors, and in 1964 Neal ended up prosecuting the Teamsters leader again. “Every day, every day for those six or seven months, I’d look over and Hoffa would be giving me the finger. He said I was the meanest prosecutor that ever lived,” he says. “You know, the truth of the matter is I kind of enjoyed Jimmy Hoffa.”
He enjoyed Hoffa’s conviction even more. “And then Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence to time served,” Neal says, trying to suppress a laugh, “which is kind of ironic because years later I was set to be the chief prosecutor of Richard Nixon.”
Following JFK’s assassination and Robert Kennedy’s departure from the Justice Department, Neal returned to Nashville to become U.S. district attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. Two years later he went into private practice and in 1971 teamed up with Aubrey Harwell, a towering man who parcels his words more carefully than his flashier partner. “[Neal] is unbelievably tenacious. He is a consummate professional, totally adheres to the ethical standards of our profession and is viewed by many as one of the finest trial lawyers in the last 40 years,” Harwell says.
Neal was engrossed in “some really interesting cases” when, in May 1973, he got a call from Archibald Cox, special prosecutor for Watergate. “Jim, you’re the only man I know who knows anything about criminal law,” said Cox, who had worked with Neal as solicitor general for Robert Kennedy. “Will you come up and help me out?” Reluctant to leave his fledgling firm, Neal agreed to aid Cox in Washington for three weeks. He stayed, of course, to the end, while he prosecuted White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman and others.
A lesser lawyer would have crumpled under the intense publicity. Neal reveled in it. “I have never understood people who don’t [enjoy the media],” he says, pointing out that “if you understand the media has a job to do and that 99 percent are honest, and if you don’t lie to them,” most editorial clashes can be avoided. Fame, on the other hand, is fleeting. Country singer Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash — Neal’s longtime clients — attended the Watergate trial in the nation’s capital. One day during recess, the three friends were taking a walk when a busload of tourists pulled up. “The driver says, ‘Look, passengers,’ and I thought he was gonna say, ‘Here’s Jim Neal, the Watergate prosecutor,’” Neal says with a grin. “But instead he said, ‘Look, here’s Johnny Cash!’”
If the Hoffa case catalyzed Neal’s colorful career, then Watergate raised it to the next level. Walter Cronkite reportedly called Neal’s closing argument one of the best he’d ever heard. The late Washington columnist Mary McCrory wrote Neal a letter thanking him for his service to the American public. And at least one convicted Watergate defendant later expressed admiration for him. “Jim and I were in New York,” Harwell recalls. “[John] Mitchell has gone to prison, he’s out. We run into him on a street corner. He says, ‘Jim, when I think back about your prosecuting me and my going to prison, I only have one regret.’ And Jim said, ‘What is that, John?’ He said, ‘That I didn’t hire you first.’”
After Watergate, Neal resumed his Nashville practice and in 1980, in one of the decade’s most notorious cases, defended Ford Motor Co. after three girls died in a Pinto explosion. It was the first time an American company had been charged with homicide. As usual, Neal studied the case in painstaking detail, poring over every nuance of automobile manufacturing, fuel systems and rear-impact collisions. “Here’s a letter from Henry Ford II, telling me how much he appreciated my work in the Ford case,” Neal says, showing off the framed memento. “Henry the Deuce! Great guy. I’d be smoking these big cigars — one of my real vices and fairly expensive. Henry Ford would be smoking a little A&C, about a 20-cent cigar.”
Nearly a decade later, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, spilling its contents in an Alaskan sound, Charles Matthews, vice president and general counsel for ExxonMobil, knew just whom to call. “I wanted somebody that would fit very easily with the legal staff already assembled,” says Matthews. “And Jim has the adaptability to fit into all kinds of situations with ease.” There were other selling points, too: Neal’s thorough knowledge of the law, communication skills and uncanny ability to “recognize the facts that really make a difference. That’s where he stands out,” says Matthews, who watched as the quick-witted Neal exerted his upbeat “calming influence” on the stressed-out Exxon staff. “He’s a legend. There are precious few of those.”
Neal has certainly been involved in more famous cases than most, from defending Dr. George Nichopoulos (“Dr. Nick”) on criminal malpractice charges arising from Elvis Presley’s death, to representing Vice President Al Gore during a federal investigation into the Clinton administration, to landing an acquittal for Hollywood director John Landis after three actors died in a helicopter crash during the filming of The Twilight Zone movie. Landis was so grateful that he “adopted” a gorilla at the Los Angeles Zoo, paid for its upkeep and named it Jim. Neal later made his own acting debut when he played the role of defense lawyer A.L. Henson in the 1983 made-for-TV movie Murder in Coweta County, starring his buddy Johnny Cash as the county sheriff and Andy Griffith as the accused murderer.
In the office, Neal is known for setting young, nervous associates at ease and offering sage advice such as “Don’t kick the water boy.” Scattered throughout the 20th-floor firm are place-card-size quips saved from a luncheon for summer college interns. On one side are the “JFN Rules”: 1. Work Hard. 2. Don’t Screw Up. 3. Refer Back to Nos. 1 & 2. The flip side reads, “Work Like a Dog — That’s How I Got My Start.” The card, of course, is signed James F. Neal.
Neal is “great to work for,” his employees say, especially when he’s in a playful mood or crooning Sinatra’s “My Way” as he saunters down the hall. As for his assertion that he’s mellowed with age, well, that depends upon who you ask.
For Neal, the key to a solid case is meticulous preparation. “I don’t think defense counsel generally win cases; the prosecutors lose cases. Johnnie Cochran — he [was] a fine lawyer, I’m not putting him down, but the prosecution lost the [O.J. Simpson] case.
“There’s a world of difference between good lawyers and mediocre lawyers,” he says, lowering his voice to a near-whisper. “There ain’t a world of difference between the lawyers who are good. We all do something of the same thing, a little better or maybe a little worse. We all know how to make an opening statement. We know how to cross-examine witnesses. We know how to direct-exam witnesses. We know how to sum up. It’s not rocket science.”
However, Neal insists that skill isn’t everything. “You do need some break in life to separate yourself. I’ve never underestimated the overwhelming value of luck.” And how lucky is he? “Oh man, I’m lucky to be healthy, lucky to get a case like Hoffa, lucky to be a poor farm boy because I worked hard, and hard work made me a lawyer. I knew I didn’t want to work that hard again in my life.”

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