After he convinced a Chattanooga jury in 1964 to convict Jimmy Hoffa of jury tampering, prosecutor James F. Neal found himself at the heart of many more headline-making trials — both as prosecutor and defense attorney.
Mr. Neal also prosecuted President Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Domestic Affairs Adviser John Ehrlichman in the Watergate trials, and he defended Exxon after the oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska.
What few know is that Mr. Neal, who now practices in Nashville, also defended Edward Partin after the Teamster informant helped the Kennedy administration bring down Mr. Hoffa.
“I defended Edward Partin three times around the country,” Mr. Neal said this week while in Chattanooga for the annual meeting of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. “You have to understand that Kennedy people are loyal people, and Partin stood up for us.”
Chattanooga attorney Gary Lander, who worked for Mr. Neal in his defense practice in the early 1970s, recalled that Mr. Neal “was extremely grateful and loyal to Partin,” who wore a wire for the government to record Teamster conversations, Mr. Lander said.
“He was very busy, and we worked very hard on it,” Mr. Lander said of Mr. Neal’s defense for Mr. Partin. “Mr. Neal is a brilliant defense attorney and thorough researcher. I learned an awful lot from him.”
The list of Mr. Neal’s successful prosecutions and defenses stretched forward.
In Tennessee, he successfully prosecuted Z.T. “Tommy” Osborn, the Nashville attorney charged with helping the Teamsters tamper with jurors in the Test Fleet trial that led to Mr. Hoffa’s indictment on jury tampering. In 1967, he returned to Chattanooga to defend one-time Hamilton County sheriff and Chattanooga City Commissioner James “Bookie” Turner on charges of conspiring to control illegal whiskey trade while serving on the City Commission. Mr. Turner, now deceased, was not convicted and went on to win re-election to the commission.
Nationally, Mr. Neal also won acquittal for Dr. “Nick” Nichopoulos, accused of authorizing prescriptions for drugs that contributed to Elvis Presley’s death, and he successfully defended movie director John Landis, who was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter after a helicopter crash during the filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” killed actor Vic Morrow and two child actors.
Mr. Neal defended Exxon after the oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez. And he defended Ford Motor Co. when the automaker was charged with reckless homicide in the deaths of three young women killed when their Pinto’s gas tank exploded after a rear-end collision.
“I’ve been lucky to have good cases,” Mr. Neal said.
He said the Watergate case was “something akin to the Hoffa case, in that you couldn’t get in the courthouse because it was too crowded.”
“The biggest problem from my point as a prosecutor was dealing with crush of media at that time,” he said.
But the Watergate cases were not difficult to prosecute, he recalled.
“If the defense put a witness on the stand to give an innocent explanation of something, we’d play the White House tapes where they’d be saying, ‘Look, if we’re caught we’ll say X,’ which is what they were just saying on the stand.”
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...