Sheridan Man Who Torched County Attorney Office Loses Another Appeal
A man sentenced to nearly four decades in prison for torching the Sheridan County Attorney's Office four years ago lost an attempt to have his sentence vacated or changed, according to federal court records.
Joel Elliott poured gasoline and used an explosive device to ignite the public building in June 2014, the day before he was about to plead guilty to forgery in Sheridan County Court and he was afraid of losing his gun rights as a result. The fire didn't hurt anybody, but it caused $900,000 in damage.
The Sheridan County Attorney's Office also was prosecuting him for felony stalking of a former girlfriend, and Elliott was mad at two prosecutors who were friends of the woman.
A jury convicted him of five counts, and U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl on Dec. 18, 2015, sentenced him to 37 years of imprisonment -- the mandatory minimum of seven for arson of a public building receiving federal funds; a consecutive mandatory minimum 30 years for using a firearm (in this case a bomb) during a crime of violence; and concurrent sentences for possessing an unregistered firearm (bomb), lying to a grand jury; and using a firearm or explosive to commit a felony. He also was ordered to pay restitution.
To further complicate matters, Elliott unsuccessfully tried to escape from the Natrona County Detention Center during a snowstorm three days before his sentencing. That added another year of prison to the original 37.
Elliott immediately appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, questioning how the government investigated the crime and whether the building's occupant was receiving federal money.
The appellate court affirmed the sentence.
So in January, Elliott filed a motion to vacate or correct the sentence. He claimed his attorneys were ineffective because they didn't try to suppress under the Sixth Amendment of certain secretly recorded statements he made to an undercover informant, and the federal prosecutors violated the law when they didn't disclose emails about the recorded statements.
Skavdahl rejected both arguments in his order filed last week.
When Elliott spoke to the undercover informant, he had not yet been charged in the federal arson case, Skavdahl wrote. Elliott was talking to the informant about other unrelated state crimes of burglary, forgery and felony stalking. But during that conversation he mentioned that he knew something about the arson, according to Skavdahl's ruling.
The judge wrote that Elliott didn't have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel when he incriminated himself, and that doesn't qualify as ineffective assistance of counsel.
Regarding the emails, Skavdahl wrote that they didn't reveal any facts about the arson charges, they didn't have anything to do with Elliott's petition, nor would they have changed the outcome of the trial.
Because of these and other problems with Elliott's motion, Skavdahl also denied a request for a court-appointed attorney and an evidentiary hearing.
The judge wrote, "A certificate of appealability may issue if Defendant 'has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.'"
Elliott didn't meet that "substantial showing," so Skavdahl denied his motion.