The Montana Supreme Court has denied a petition for post-conviction relief filed by a Billings man who argued that a District Court judge misinterpreted the state’s arson law and that he had ineffective attorneys.
The Dec. 20 Supreme Court ruling left in place a five-year suspended sentence given to Lionel Scott Ellison in 2009 for an October 2007 fire that damaged a woman’s car.
Ellison in 2008 entered a no-contest plea to arson on the advice of his attorney, Jeffrey Michael. Pleading no contest means a person admits no guilt for the crime, but the court can determine the punishment.
Ellison then changed his mind and his attorney, having Herbert “Chuck” Watson file a motion to withdraw the no-contest plea, contending Ellison didn’t enter it knowingly or voluntarily. But a District Court judge rejected the request, and in May 2009 Ellison received a five-year suspended sentence.
He appealed the District Court’s decision, and the Montana Supreme Court in November 2009 sided with the lower court.
In February 2011, Ellison filed for post-conviction relief, arguing the arson statute only applied to property valued at over $1,000. He said that because the damaged vehicle was worth less, there was no factual basis for his no-contest plea. He also argued that Michael and Watson provided ineffective counsel for allowing him to enter a plea for a charge that had an insufficient factual basis and that Watson didn’t use those grounds on appeal.
The District Court denied Ellison’s petition, stating that he was misreading the state’s arson law. The statute says a person commits arson when they use fire or explosives to intentionally damage or destroy “a structure, vehicle, personal property (other than a vehicle) that exceeds $1,000 in value, crop, pasture, forest or other real property that is the property of another without consent.”
Elizabeth Honaker, Ellison’s attorney for his appeal, argued that the $1,000 value also applies to structures and personal vehicles. The Supreme Court ruled the $1,000 threshold applies only to the category of personal property. The court said that category doesn’t include vehicles, meaning the $1,000 threshold wasn’t needed.
Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote in the 5-0 decision that Michael and Watson did not provide ineffective assistance for failing to use Ellison’s incorrect interpretation of “value” in the arson statute.
“Because the value of the vehicle is immaterial to the arson charge, it would have been frivolous for either of Ellison’s attorneys to object or appeal on this issue,” McKinnon wrote.
Meanwhile, in April, Ellison received five years in prison, with two suspended, for violating the terms of the 2009 suspended sentence after being convicted of eight misdemeanors in recent years, including domestic violence, theft and insurance fraud. Ellison was twice suspected of staging his own abduction. State records indicate he is currently being held at Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.
In a related matter, accusations between Ellison’s attorneys arose before the most recent ruling.
In November 2012, Honaker filed a complaint alleging Michael threatened her for handling Ellison’s petition.
Honaker said Michael left her a voice mail in January 2012 in which he said he was coming to “get” her and that she should be prepared because he was going to “wipe her out.”
Michael has been ordered to appear before the Montana Supreme Court on Jan. 7 for a public censure. His license will be on probation for a year and he must complete a “counseling assessment with a focus on anger.”
Michael didn’t return a call seeking comment from The Associated Press on Saturday.
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