Photo called crucial in murder trial of Jeannette teen accused of taking selfie with corpse
When questioned by police after he allegedly sent a “selfie” of him with the body of a friend he is accused of fatally shooting two years ago, Maxwell Morton, then 16, showed little emotion or concern about his actions, two officers testified Tuesday on the first day of his trial.
“When he described pulling the trigger, he had a little smirk on his face and said, ‘I didn’t really care, either,’ ” Westmoreland County Detective James Williams told jurors.
Morton, 18, of Jeannette is accused of intentionally firing a 9mm semiautomatic handgun into the left eye of Ryan Mangan, 16, as they played video games Feb. 4, 2015.
Police contend Morton took a photograph of himself with Mangan’s body minutes after the shooting and an hour later sent the image via the social media app Snapchat while he played online video games with a teen in Wisconsin.
The picture, which depicts Morton smiling in the forefront as Mangan’s lifeless body is slumped over in a chair with a wound under his left eye, was entered into evidence Tuesday but has yet to be displayed for the jury.
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio this week ruled the picture was admissible and could be viewed by jurors.
Prosecutors contend the photo is a key piece of evidence to show that Morton intended to kill his classmate.
“As Ryan lay dead, the defendant’s most important concern is to take the photograph. He didn’t even call for help,” District Attorney John Peck said in his opening statement.
Williams and Detective Robert Weaver testified Morton gave a brief confession in which he claimed the shooting was an accident. Weaver told jurors Morton said the teens were dancing around in Mangan’s Jeannette bedroom when his friend pulled the gun from a pillowcase.
Morton took the gun and removed a round, then Mangan put the bullet back into the weapon, Weaver testified. Morton claimed he pointed the gun, apparently in an attempt to replicate a photograph that Mangan had previously taken down the barrel of a weapon, and pulled the trigger.
Williams testified that Morton was identified as a suspect after a Wisconsin woman forwarded the selfie to police. The weapon was found wrapped in a shirt under a basement stairway in Morton’s home.
Defense attorney Pat Thomassey told jurors Morton was reckless and negligent but didn’t intend to kill his friend.
“People don’t kill people for nothing. What’s missing here is a motive. They were best friends. This was an accident,” Thomassey said, noting that Morton should be found guilty of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder.
He told jurors that Morton’s statement to police about not caring about the shooting was not apathy toward his friend’s death but rather a cry for help.
“He told me a thousand times he was going to shoot himself,” Thomassey said.
He suggested to jurors that Morton knew nothing about guns and that it was Mangan who was the expert. Evidence during the trial will show that the dead teen had an interest in guns, Thomassey said.
The judge ruled Tuesday that the defense can show jurors at least two pictures found on Mangan’s phone of him holding guns.
Evidence of Mangan’s interest in weapons also was found in his bedroom. According to police, detectives found hidden shotgun rounds and bullets for another handgun. No weapons were found, Williams testified.
Mangan’s parents testified they did not know their son had a gun in his bedroom.
The Wisconsin teen who claims Morton sent him the selfie and his mother are expected to testify Wednesday, Peck said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer.