A Billings man who pleaded no contest to arson last year was back in court Thursday for a hearing on whether he should be allowed to take his case to trial.
Attorneys for Lionel Scott Ellison have asked District Judge Susan Watters to grant a motion to withdraw his plea based on claims that his previous attorney provided ineffective assistance.
At a hearing on that question last August, Ellison testified that attorney Jeff Michael did not provide him any of the evidence in the case against him. Ellison said Michael told him he could receive a deferred sentence in the arson case despite a previous felony conviction on his record, and the attorney did not let him read the plea agreement before he signed it. Ellison also said Michael threatened that if he did not accept a plea agreement from prosecutors, he could be charged with an additional felony of tampering with a witness.
Michael, who testified Thursday, said he was fired by Ellison on the morning Ellison was scheduled to be sentenced. Ellison is now represented by Bozeman attorney Herman "Chuck" Watson.
Michael called Ellison's assertions that he coerced him to plead no contest "just crazy." Ellison was provided with all the evidence in the case, Michael said. While the plea agreement called for prosecutors to recommend that Ellison receive a five-year suspended prison sentence, Michael said he told Ellison that he would ask the judge for a deferred sentence but the chances of getting that sentence were slim.
Michael said he also told Ellison that prosecutors were considering charging him with witnesses tampering after learning that Ellison offered a man $500 to be a witness in his defense. It was in Ellison's best interest, Michael said, to accept the prosecution's offer in the arson case and avoid an additional felony charge.
That witness-tampering allegation would have "put a whole different light on the case" if it had gone to trial, Michael said. "The credibility of my client becomes more than an issue, it's shot to hell."
The arson charge alleges that Ellison set fire to a 1986 Ford Thunderbird on Oct. 22, 2007. He was scheduled to be sentenced last May 29, but he was found the day before on the bank of the Yellowstone River near Lockwood. He told sheriff's investigators that two men abducted him, tied his hands behind his back and threw him into the river.
The Sheriff's Office investigated the incident, but the case has since been closed because detectives could find no evidence to support Ellison's claim, Sheriff's Lt. Ron Wilson said Thursday.
Watters will issue a written ruling on Ellison's motion later.