By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
A Torrington man who set his own tattoo parlor on fire and beat his girlfriend to death last year does not get to change his plea to “not guilty” nearly a year after he was sentenced to prison.
Sean Logan Pettus, 33, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and guilty to arson, theft, and two counts of burglary in August 2021, but then tried to take back his no contest plea, claiming his lawyer failed him and he, Pettus, didn’t fully understand the plea.
No contest is not an admission of guilt, but merely an agreement not to argue against a charge because insurmountable evidence accompanies it.
Pettus on April 20, 2021, was arrested for using gasoline to set setting a fire to a hair salon abutting his tattoo parlor in Torrington. The parlor also was burned. After setting the fire, he reportedly went to a convenience store, stole a bottle of whiskey, left behind a gasoline-smelling sweatshirt and stole a Ford Taurus that had been left running outside the store, court documents state.
Torrington police arrested Pettus and charged him with theft and arson.
While investigating the fire, officers learned that Pettus’ girlfriend, Madison Cook, had been socially silent for two days. They went to her apartment and found her dead of stab wounds and asphyxiation. The autopsy later revealed blunt force trauma to her eye and bleeding inside her brain.
Police added first-degree murder to the list of charges against Pettus.
Pettus paused his arraignment to call for a mental health evaluation, but the evaluator later concluded he was “feigning symptoms of mental illness” to improve his court prospects, according to court documents.
Pettus then struck a plea agreement that allowed him to dodge the death penalty and a life sentence without parole: He agreed to plead no contest to the lesser charge of second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of between 20 years and life in prison. He told his sentencing evaluator that the agreement was for 50 years, documents state.
At his arraignment Aug. 23, 2021, the District Court judge grilled Pettus on whether he understood the pleas, their consequences, whether he was satisfied with his attorney and had time to consider his decision.
Pettus answered “yes.”
Two months later, Pettus asked to retract his “no contest” plea. He said his lawyer had been ineffective and he claimed he had new evidence regarding his whereabouts during those two days in April.
The new evidence, court documents state, was “an unsworn letter from a neighbor who claimed Mr. Pettus had been staying with him during the time the murder was alleged to have taken place,” court documents read. The letter contradicted statements Pettus had made when interviewed by police.
Pettus attended a hearing Nov. 19, 2021, at which the state provided evidence showing Pettus was fully aware of what he was doing when he pleaded no contest.
Pettus did not present evidence at that hearing, court documents state.
“(T)oday was the time, Mr. Pettus, for you to present evidence on the basis for you to withdraw your plea and you did not do so,” said the judge. “The court is left then with the only evidence … (that) you told me you were satisfied with counsel …. (and) your attorneys gave you advice potentially not to change your plea at that time.”
No Second Chance
Pettus asked the Wyoming Supreme Court this year to grant an appeal stating the District Court was in error for not letting him change his plea.
The high court did not side with Pettus, deciding instead that the District Court was within its rights to deny Pettus, and Pettus’ “new evidence” was nothing more than a lingering claim of innocence, the ruling states.
Pettus also couldn’t failed to demonstrate that his attorney had been negligent in any way, the state Supreme Court ruled.