Famous Tennessee Lawyers

[avatar user=”landisturner” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” /]

By Landis Turner

In discussing the Scopes Trial, usually called Monkey Trial, you mentioned that Darrow and Bryan were the two most famous lawyers in America. That trial was in the early part of the 20th century. In more recent times, have there been any lawyers who were equal to those two giants? –BSM, Franklin.

In terms of being colorful, none could match them. But there have been others right here in Tennessee whose talents would rival any who proceeded them. I will mention three, with whom I was personally acquainted.

Everyone has heard of John Jay Hooker, who has been in the public eye as a  lawyer, businessman and politician for many years. John is a talented lawyer, but his father was an icon of the bar. Whether it be a civil or criminal case, John Jay Hooker, Sr. of Nashville was unsurpassed in his ability to represent his clients in jury trials. He could prosecute or defend with equal vigor. He was a special prosecutor when Teamster Union President Jimmy Hoffa was tried in Tennessee for mail fraud and later for jury tampering in the previous trial, which had ended in a hung jury.  He was also a prosecutor when Judge Raulston Schoolfield of Chattanooga was tried before the State Senate after being impeached by the House of Representatives for corruption.

As a defense attorney in criminal cases, Jack Norman of Nashville was a master. His closing arguments sometimes seemed to hypnotize juries. His reputation equaled that of Hooker.  He was as eloquent and more colorful.  His home and office were in Printers Alley.  When prosecutor Hooker and defense attorney Norman faced each other in the trial of Capitol Chevrolet owner Bill Powell for the murder of his partner Haynie Gourley, the press had a great time. They compared the battle to Darrow v. Bryan and even Lee v. Grant.

Back then, and continuing until well after I began my practice, lawyers were allowed to smoke in court.  One of Norman’s tricks was to put a long needle or wire through his cigar.  That would keep the ash attached to the unsmoked part for a very long time.  Norman would use this tactic when the prosecutors were arguing to the jury.  The jurors were so mesmerized by watching to see how long the ash would remain in place that their attention was drawn away from the opposition.

James F. Neal was on the staff of the U. S. Attorney.  He led the prosecution of Jimmy Hoffa.  I was in law school at the time and watched quite a bit of the trial.  Making sure the judge couldn’t see it, Jimmy would sometimes put his hand under the defense table and give the rude one finger salute to Jim across the aisle.

After leaving government service, Jim became one of the most well-known and successful defense lawyers in the country.  He successfully defended Ford Motor Company when it was charged with reckless homicide due to faulty design of its Pinto model car.

Neal won an acquittal for Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards who was indicted for racketeering.

In 1973, Neal was recruited to investigate the Watergate scandal. He went on to prosecute and obtain convictions of President Nixon’s top aides.

Jim defended film director John Landis when he was charged with manslaughter due to the death of actor Vic Morrow during filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie. He won an acquittal for Exxon after the enormous oil spill in Alaska.

One of my favorite stories involves Jim’s defense of Elvis Presley’s doctor (Dr. Feelgood) when he was accused of overprescribing drugs to his patient, thereby contributing to his death.  I asked Jim what he thought about the claims of people who said Elvis was not really dead.  There were alleged sightings of him at malls and various other places. He couldn’t swear that “The King” was dead, but, he replied, “I read his autopsy.”


BSM of Franklin also asked another question.  She said that I have written about the Scopes trial as Tennessee’s most famous case and reapportionment of legislatures as our most important case.  But she wondered what was the most famous criminal case tried in Tennessee.

The Hoffa and Elvis’ doctor cases are equally famous.  Both attracted worldwide publicity.


This column discusses legal issues of general interest and does not give legal advice on any reader’s personal situation.   The law is not a one-size-fits-all hat.   Consult a lawyer of your choice.

Landis Turner is a graduate of the University of the South-Sewanee and Vanderbilt University School of Law.       He is a former president of the Tennessee Bar Association.

Comments are closed.