Defense attorney weighs in on Halderson team’s strategy, decision not to have him testify

MADISON, Wis. — Jurors rarely heard from the defense in the Chandler Halderson murder trial.

Halderson’s lawyers spent only around 10 minutes on opening statements at the beginning of the trial and roughly 30 minutes on closing arguments Thursday. Their client didn’t testify in his own defense, and his lawyers didn’t call any witnesses.

While the strategy may be unusual, it’s not without precedent, Madison defense attorney Jessa Nicholson — who is not affiliated with the case — told News 3 Now after Halderson was found guilty on all eight charges tied to his parents’ murders.

MORE: Full coverage of the Chandler Halderson homicide investigation and trial — live stream, previous stories, timelines and interviews

“It’s probably a bit unusual but certainly not unheard of when you’re talking about a case where it’s (a) burden of proof (situation), which is what the argument was here,” she said. “In cases when there is an affirmative defense… there you expect witnesses because there is an alternative version of events to discuss. When you’re talking about a case where the argument is there is just not enough evidence here, there aren’t really many witnesses you can really call to support that because simply by calling them, you’re adding to the evidence.

When it came to the decision about whether to have Halderson testify, Nicholson said she has “never been less surprised” to see a defendant not testify.

“Let’s assume this guy was 100% innocent of what he was accused of — something I don’t think is true  — but if he was, the number of lies he told about other things, you know, where he worked, where he was going to move, what his internship was, how his grades were, just on and on and on, (it) would have been such a filet on (cross-examination), he would just get fileted,” she said. “It would be a massacre… It would’ve been such a brutal cross-examination that I don’t know there was anything he could have said that would’ve helped him.”

Halderson’s defense team ultimately “did their jobs,” Nicholson said.

“They argued the burden of proof,” she said. “It might not have been dazzling to people, but you know what? When the facts aren’t on your side, it often isn’t. Burden of proof is this clunky legalistic discussion that lawyers largely have; it’s not appealing to juries, but that doesn’t make the attornies ineffective, far from it.”

TIMELINE: Breaking down the details in the Halderson investigation

Had she been representing Halderson, Nicholson said her strategy would not have been radically different, though she did say she would probably not have declared his innocence in opening statements because the burden of proof was on prosecutors to prove he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now that Halderson has been found guilty, an attempt to appeal would not be unusual, she said.

“That said, there was a very strong amount of evidence in the state’s case here,” she added. “When that’s true, there’s something called harmless error. Basically, someone can say, ‘Well this went wrong,’ or, ‘The defense attorney could’ve done this differently,’ or, ‘We have this complaint about an evidentiary ruling,’ but the Court of Appeals will look at it and say, ‘Well sure, even if we accept that was a problem, the rest of what happened was so overwhelmingly convincing about your client’s guilt that there’s no reason to give him a new trial and no reason to overturn this conviction based on those minor issues.'”

Ultimately, there were no issues significant enough that Nicholson believes an appeals court would trigger a successful appeal.

Nicholson previously said she would have asked for a mistrial in the case after Halderson tested positive for COVID-19, forcing a weeklong delay in proceedings. That time off, she said, would have allowed jurors to replay the prosecution’s arguments over in their minds without having heard from the defense.