Supreme Court denies appeal in arson case

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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.

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