On 4 February 2015, school friends Maxwell Morton and Ryan Mangan, both 16-years-old, were fooling around with a handgun in Ryan’s bedroom in the city of Jeannette, Pennsylvania. Maxwell claims he didn’t know it was loaded when he pointed it at his friend and pulled the trigger. The shot hit Ryan in the face just under his left eye causing severe injuries. What Maxwell Morton did next has shocked many and resulted in him being convicted of murder and imprisoned for up to 30 years.

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Maxwell Morton

Two teenage boys who had met recently at their school and enjoyed hanging out together, had their lives changed irreversibly in a split second. They were in Ryan’s home on their own on that evening with Ryan’s mother Rebecca Murtland out at work. After the gun fired, Maxwell Morton used his mobile phone to take a selfie, a close-up photo of himself inside Ryan’s bedroom. A photo taken at an angle to ensure behind a smiling Morton was Ryan Mangan, bloodied and shot with his life ebbing away. Morton then left Ryan’s home taking the gun with him and returned to his own house a short distance away. He did not call an ambulance or request assistance in any way for his injured friend.

Ryan Mangan died alone in his bedroom where his mother found his body when she returned from work some hours later. Medical experts confirmed during Morton’s trial that if he had called for help after the shooting, there is a good chance Ryan could have been saved.

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16-year-old Ryan Mangan

Once at home Maxwell Morton logged into his online gaming and began playing video games. A teenager in Wisconsin was playing online with him when Morton bragged about shooting Ryan, according to the testimony he gave in court, something the teenager didn’t believe until Maxwell sent him a news article about the shooting and Ryan’s death along with a link to the selfie he took which he sent via the social media platform Snapchat.

The teenager, horrified at what he had just seen, took a screenshot of the image before it was auto-deleted by Snapchat, and showed his mother who contacted police in Pennsylvania and told them ‘you probably won’t believe this, but we have a Snapchat of the murder’, reports the Toronto Sun.

Maxwell Morton was arrested at his home near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and charged with murder. The 9mm handgun he used to shoot Ryan was found hidden inside his home. After his arrest, the decision was made to try him as an adult due to the seriousness of his crime and both the prosecution team and Ryan’s parents were pushing for a conviction of first-degree murder.

Maxwell Morton arrest

Maxwell Morton being led to his preliminary hearing in April 2015.

Morton went on trial in February 2017, two years after the shooting. At Westmoreland County Court in Greensburg, the judge ruled that the selfie he took showing himself and a seriously injured Ryan in the background just minutes after the shooting was admissible evidence and should be shown to the jury. The defence was hoping to exclude this photograph, concerned that if members of the jury saw it, it would create an ‘emotional bias’, potentially influencing their final verdict.

Pat Thomassey, Morton’s defence attorney gave his version of events to the court. He said the shooting was an accident and Morton panicked after the gun went off and Ryan was shot. He took the selfie, the court was told, to record what had happened and had taken the gun with him as he intended to kill himself. During his trial, the police detectives from Westmoreland County Police who interviewed Maxwell Morton, told the court that when Morton ‘described pulling the trigger, he had a little smirk on his face’, according to NY Daily News.

Quite why Maxwell Morton’s first thought after shooting his friend was to take a selfie with him rather than call for emergency aid is hard to understand. Furthermore, stopping to take such a picture with your dying friend in the background are not the actions that would be expected of a panicking individual, even as a 16-year-old boy. This selfie image is, no doubt, one of the key factors that secured a guilty verdict against Morton at his trial.

“The reality is this case would be very different but not for that photograph. No one will understand the thought process of taking that photo.”

If Maxwell Morton had phoned for an ambulance, had gotten Ryan the help he needed which could have saved his life, and owned up to what had happened immediately, it is unlikely he would have faced a murder charge. Morton, however, displayed behaviours suggesting he had some form of enjoyment in what had happened, he wanted to brag about it and seemed to have no regard for the life of Ryan whatsoever. From the time the gun fired to the moment, he was arrested, the behaviour of Morton does not fit with a terrible accident with a firearm resulting in shock and panic.

The jury, after deliberating for six hours, convicted Morton of third-degree murder, otherwise referred to as voluntary manslaughter, highlighting the jury did not feel that Maxwell Morton intended to kill Ryan, however, his actions did indeed result in his death and he was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. After the verdict, Ryan’s parents spoke with People about their anguish over what happened to their son and knowing the outcome could have been very different had Maxwell Morton only used his phone to call 911 instead of take photos. “It was like my son died all over again a second time, and I just feel that this isn’t justice for him,” Ryan’s father George Mangan Jr. told People.

Snapchat treats media files differently than other social media platforms, deleting images minutes after they have been uploaded and sent, possibly why Morton used this platform to send the selfie and thought it would be safe to do so.

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The use of social media in this way is becoming more common.  The ability to take photos and make videos at the push of a button via mobile phones is attractive for some when they think that being part of, or responsible for, a crime even as serious as murder is something they should be proud of, taking photos and sending them around to their friends afterwards.

Sword and Scale writer Heather Sutfin recently reported on a group of men who mugged Ryan Coupens and proceeded to take a Snapchat video of themselves laughing about the assault on Ryan’s own phone and how 19-year-old Kimberly Dolan was tracked down after assaulting a woman when she posted photos of herself and her child using Snapchat at an amusement park. There have been many horrific cases of criminals using the new Facebook Live feature to record their criminal acts in real-time streaming it to their Facebook news feeds.

Maxwell Morton who is now facing a long stretch of time in prison for his actions two years ago is trying to reduce his sentence, maintaining his account that the shooting was an accident. Reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Morton’s defence lawyer has stated: “The court did not give appropriate weight to the defendant’s overwhelming remorse and regret regarding the accidental shooting of his friend.”

Whether or not Maxwell Morton does now have genuine remorse for what happened and his actions afterwards, his decision to take that selfie image and simply walk away rather than help Ryan does not match his defence argument that the shooting was accidental and he panicked.  Teenagers can and often do make some very impulsive and quite often stupid decisions, but this is one decision that has cost Ryan Mangan his life and Maxwell Morton years of his freedom.