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Marking the Passing of a Legal Giant

When it comes to telling the stories arising out of the workplace, generally the lawyers take a back seat. Once in a while, however, a lawyer who has had a dramatic impact becomes the story.
James Neal was born in 1929 in Oak Grove, Tennessee. He died in a Nashville hospital this past week at the age of 81.
In between, he became a key figure in many American legal proceedings which, directly or indirectly, had their roots in the workplace (and particularly in alleged work-related misdeeds).
In 1964, Neal was a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In that role, he won the U.S. government’s first conviction against the infamous President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa.
Neal had intentions of becoming a tax lawyer, at least until his association with Kennedy began in 1961. The American Bar Association’s ABA Journal quoted Neal describing his discussion with Kennedy over the assignment to prosecute corrupt labour union leaders. “I told him I didn’t have any trial experience. [Kennedy] told me, ‘That’s OK because I don’t have any experience being attorney general either’.”
Hoffa had eluded conviction on four prior occasions before he was nailed on charges of jury tampering, bribery, and fraud. Neal described Hoffa as “the toughest old bird I ever met”, recalling that “When the judge would recess for lunch, Hoffa would walk over to me, stick his chest out and tell me that we should go down to the gym, put on the gloves, so that we could settle this like men.”
According to the ABA Journal, Neal was sitting in the courtroom one day when a man named Warren Swanson pulled out a gun and started shooting at Hoffa. Neal recalled that “Not only did Hoffa not seek cover; [he] started charging towards Swanson and punched [him] right in the face.”
In 1973, Neal was appointed to be the chief trial lawyer for the office of the Watergate special prosecutor. He successfully prosecuted key Watergate conspirators John Mitchell, Robert Haldeman, and John Erlichman.
Neal was given the task of proving that those three individuals were involved in a conspiracy with U.S. President Richard Nixon to cover up a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel. According to the ABA Journal, Neal described it as the most important case in which he had ever been involved.
The result, the 1975 conviction and imprisonment of the three for conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice, caused Neal to comment that, “[I]t was the greatest example that our criminal justice system, thanks to an independent judiciary, works – even when dealing with those in the highest positions of government.”
President Nixon, however, escaped impeachment and criminal prosecution as a result of his 1974 resignation from the presidency and subsequent full and unconditional pardon by his successor, President Gerald Ford.
In 1981, Neal figured prominently in the acquittal of Elvis Presley’s physician after Dr. George Nichopoulos was charged with over-prescribing drugs to the late king of rock ‘n roll. Neal made a critical decision to keep the trial of his client in Memphis despite the prospect that the citizens of Presley’s home town – who would form the jury - might be predisposed to vent their despair on the physician.
Neal is reported to have thoroughly discredited the state’s key expert medical witness in the trial against Nichopoulous, resulting in a quick “not guilty” decision by the jury.
In 1987, Neal successfully defended movie director John Landis after the deaths of three actors as a result of an on-set accident during filming of the movie, “Twilight Zone”. Landis had been charged with involuntary manslaughter as a result of a helicopter crash amid detonating special effects explosives.
Prosecutors sought to demonstrate that Landis had been reckless and had violated child labour laws (two of the actors killed were children). Despite testimony from crew members that Landis had been warned about the dangers of the helicopter stunt, Neal obtained an acquittal.
Many of Neal’s cases were reportedly considered unwinnable. Neal, however, took a different view of the actions of all of these people in the course of their respective occupations.
Neal has been described as the greatest trial lawyer of his time. Those are words of high praise, indeed. Judging by the degree of success he maintained over a span of many decades, they are well deserved.
Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer. For more information about his practice, or to view past “Legal Ease” articles, go to