James Neal worked both sides of the courtroom during a legal career spanning more than half a century, as a defender winning a manslaughter acquittal for film director John Landis in the death of actor Vic Morrow, and as a prosecutor putting labor leader Jimmy Hoffa behind bars. Hoffa called Neal “the most vicious prosecutor who ever lived.”
Neal rose a long way from humble beginnings, said the Nashville Tennessean. Born on a farm in Tennessee, he attended the University of Wyoming and served two years in the Marines before earning law degrees from Vanderbilt University and Georgetown University. Upon graduation in 1960, he joined the staff of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and quickly became known as his “top litigator.” In 1964 he won a jury-tampering conviction against Hoffa after a witness testified that Hoffa had planned to spend $15,000 bribing jury members in an earlier trial.
Neal was “reluctant” to leave private practice when, in 1973, Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox asked him to join his staff, said the Los Angeles Times. But he was “unable to resist what he later described as ‘the fastest game in town.’” In 1975 he won convictions of Attorney General John Mitchell and presidential counselors John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman on charges of conspiring to cover up the Watergate break-in.
At 5 feet 8 inches, the genial, backslapping Neal carried himself like a big man. His wife, Dianne Ferrell Neal, liked to say he was the only man she knew who “could strut sitting down.”