‘Selfie’ trial: Jeannette teen found guilty of third-degree murder
A Westmoreland County jury spared a Jeannette teen from a possible life sentence when they found him guilty Thursday of a less serious charge of third-degree murder in the fatal shooting of his friend, a crime he documented with a “selfie” of himself and the body.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated about six hours and rejected the prosecution’s theory that Maxwell Morton, now 18, intentionally killed Ryan Mangan, 16, on Feb. 4, 2015.
Morton displayed little emotion as the verdict was announced, but defense attorney Pat Thomassey said his client was pleased with the finding.
“He’s out from under a possible life sentence. The poor kid did a lot of stupid things that we had to overcome at trial,” Thomassey said.
Mangan’s parents declined to comment as they left the courtroom.
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio, who presided over the four-day trial, said Morton will be sentenced in three months. He faces up to 40 years in prison for the third-degree murder conviction.
Earlier in the day, Morton testified for about an hour in his own defense. He told jurors that he never intended to kill his best friend.
But when the handgun he held discharged, Morton said he panicked and took a “selfie” with the lifeless teen to ensure the incident was documented after he decided to take his own life.
At points he broke down in tears while describing his friendship with Mangan and the details of his death.
Morton was the lone defense witness. He told jurors the two had been friends for about 10 years and were listening to music in the bedroom of Mangan’s Jeannette home when his friend pulled a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun from a pillowcase.
Mangan started dancing around with the weapon then gave it to Morton, who told jurors he thought he cleared the gun of rounds. The teens were playing with the gun when he pointed it at Mangan, Morton said. At first, he pointed the gun to replicate a selfie Mangan had taken with the weapon, then to scare him by pulling the trigger of what he thought was an unloaded gun, Morton said.
Mangan was hit by one round under his left eye and slumped over in a chair.
“I panicked. I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen someone die like that. At first I ran out, then ran back in there and saw him lying there,” Morton said. “I wanted to tell somebody, but at that time I felt empty and had no regards for life. I had no reason to be. I was going to kill myself.”
Morton said he pulled out his cellphone to document what had occurred and took a picture with himself smiling at the camera as Mangan’s body lay in the background.
“I needed to tell somebody. Something in my head told me to take a picture of what happened. I needed to tell somebody,” Morton testified. “I wanted to tell somebody outside of Jeannette, to have time to tell people how it feels. I didn’t want to take my life and have people waste time and money and constantly wondering who did it.”
The prosecution contended Morton sent the selfie via the social media app Snapchat to an online gaming friend in Wisconsin. The recipient eventually forwarded the photo to Jeannette police.
Stifling sobs, Morton told jurors he was not an evil person.
“People think I am a monster. I am not. I’m just a chill kind of guy,” Morton testified.
Thomassey asked jurors to find Morton guilty of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. In his closing argument, Thomassey said the shooting was an accident and blamed societal ills, rap music and violent video games for influencing teens like Morton and Mangan to associate with guns.
Thomassey said it was Mangan who brought guns into play that day, pointing to the shotgun shells and bullets for multiple handguns police found in his bedroom. He called Mangan’s bedroom an “armory.”
“This was two dingdongs playing a game,” Thomassey told jurors. “What he (Morton) did afterward, I agree: stupid, stupid, stupid.”
District Attorney John Peck argued Morton should be found guilty of first-degree murder, which could include a sentence of life in prison.
The evidence showed Morton intended to kill Mangan when he pulled the trigger and furthered his intent by not getting help for his friend after the shooting, Peck said.
He argued that evidence from pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht on Wednesday indicated Mangan lived for up to an hour after the shooting and could have been saved if he had received medical treatment.
Peck said Morton’s selfie was akin to photographs posted around hunting season of children after they shoot their first deer.
“Maxwell Morton was given a second chance. His friend could have lived,” Peck said. “Again, he had an intent to kill. He didn’t lift a single finger to help.”
Morton, also found guilty of a lesser charge of possession of a weapon, was returned to the Westmoreland County Prison, where he is being held without bond.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or [email protected].