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Preparation, passion, persuasion were keys to his winning record

Thursday, September 10, 2015 @ 8:00 PM | By Donalee Moulton


In the early hours of May 7, 1992, three young men illegally entered a McDonald’s in Sydney River, Cape Breton. But their robbery did not go according to plan. By morning, three employees were killed and a fourth was left permanently disabled.

The tragedy rocked a nation, but for Allan Nicholson, who recently retired from Nova Scotia Legal Aid, the case was much more personal. It took place in his community — generally considered safe, friendly, and welcoming — and he was tapped to represent one of the accused, then 18-year-old Derek Wood, at the time a McDonald’s employee who left a basement door ajar so his accomplices could enter.

Representing people accused of murder became business as usual for Nicholson. Over the course of his 33-year career with legal aid in Sydney, he was involved in 33 murder trials, believed to be a record for any lawyer in the province.

“Murder trials are the most exciting time of your life. They’re what you went to law school for. The guy is either going to walk or go to jail for the rest of his life,” Nicholson said in an interview.

In the case of the Sydney River MacDonald’s robbery gone wrong — the biggest case of Nicholson’s career — Derek Wood was handed two terms of life imprisonment for first-degree murder and attempted murder as well as two 10-year terms for unlawful confinement and armed robbery. To this day, Nicholson, who is still in touch with his former client, believes Wood is innocent of the murder he was convicted for, and he plans to write a book about the case.

Other books may follow. Nicholson represented Lauchlin MacDonald, Hells Angels’ Halifax chapter president, on a first-degree murder charge that filled one five-foot file cabinet with documents and went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“He died before I could finish the case,” noted Nicholson.

The North Sydney native who now lives in Big Bras d’Or, Cape Breton, even took time away from the office — to represent defendants in criminal cases. Nicholson was part of the defence team for Wyn Roberts, an Alberta rancher who shot an oil executive five times over a dispute about a leaking oil well on Roberts’s property.

“He shot the vice-president of an oil company in front of eight eye witnesses and he was stone cold sober…We got it down to second-degree (murder),” said Nicholson who took a leave of absence to work on the case.

Law wasn’t Nicholson’s first choice of a profession. He managed a chain store and worked in car sales before deciding to go back to school. He thought he’d follow in his wife’s footsteps and become a pharmacist, but discovered science was not his passion. Once Nicholson decided to get his law degree from Dalhousie University, there was only one path for him: criminal law.

“Law school was a gift. I loved it. It was my calling,” said Nicholson, who made only one application to law school and only one application for an articling position, with Nova Scotia Legal Aid.

As a legal aid lawyer, Nicholson often had as many as 20 cases a day on his plate, many of them major.

“I’ve done more jury trials than any other lawyer in Nova Scotia,” he noted. “I had a 95 per cent win rate.”

His success is tied to three factors: preparation, passion and persuasion. The latter is about the ability to tell a convincing story.

“You have to be able to talk to a jury,” said Nicholson. “I could make them cry. I’m kind of a showman.”

Connecting with juries, he added, involves helping them understand the facts and seeing the facts from a defendant’s point of view.

“You have to assume that the jury knows absolutely nothing about the case and they have never been in court before.”

One of the techniques he used to confound prosecution witnesses was to present them with a series of yes/no questions and lull them into a rhythm.

“If I could get you to say yes five times, then it is very hard to say no,” noted the 73-year-old lawyer. “That’s what I did with police officers. [Then] the jury starts to listen to your story.”