Heartbreak for Victim's Family in Selfie Murder Case, Judge Says: 'Every Parent's Worst Nightmare'
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio had strong words for Maxwell Morton when she sentenced him to prison for murdering Ryan Mangan in February 2015
On May 15, as Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio announced that she was sending a 19-year-old to prison for murdering another teen she said this:
“This is probably one of the most tragic cases that I’ve ever had to be involved in, and this is one I’ll probably not ever forget. As a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the pain endured by both families. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”
In the courtroom were two sets of parents, who had come to support their sons, Ryan Mangan and Maxwell Morton. But only Morton was in the courtroom after he fatally shot Mangan in February 2015, when both were 16 years old.
In February of this year, Morton was tried as an adult and convicted of third-degree murder, though he has maintained the shooting was an accident while the two played with the weapon. Ryan’s life and death are featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
It was what Morton did after the gun went off, the judge said at his sentencing, that she couldn’t understand. After Ryan was shot once in the face, Morton left him to die in his bedroom in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, his lungs filling with blood.
Morton didn’t call for help — but he did take a smiling self-portrait with Ryan’s body, which he later sent to another boy via social media.
“The reality is this case would be very different, it would be a totally different case, but for that photo, but for the fact that you didn’t make the phone call,” Judge Bilik-DeFazio said.
“I don’t think anyone will ever understand your thought process in taking that photo,” she said. “I know I won’t.”
• For more on the selfie murder case, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now.
‘My Heart Is a Skeleton’
Both of Ryan’s parents, dad George Mangan Jr. and mom Rebecca Murtland, made statements at Morton’s sentencing that day. (This week, in a series of exclusive interviews, they spoke out for the first time to PEOPLE.)
“Those that know me will confirm that I’m not a talker,” Rebecca began during the hearing, “so I will never be able to express well enough in words how devastating a loss this has been to Ryan’s father, his grandparents, his cousins, his true friends, his high school class, his 5-year-old niece, his aunts, uncles, neighbors and myself, all of whom loved him dearly.”
“Each morning I must awake and put on my happy mask,” she continued. “My heart is a skeleton.”
“Because of Maxwell Morton’s blatant disrespect for common caution, common protocol and common courtesy, I could not sleep or eat for 15 months,” Rebecca said. “I had constant visions of my deceased son and many days were thoughts of, ‘Why?’ ”
Ryan’s dad, too, was left shattered by the death of his only child.
“Since the loss of my son, I’ve been overcome with tremendous anxiety and panic attacks that have brought me to the emergency room. I have cracked teeth from clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth in anguish while I sleep,” George said at the sentencing.
He said that he still talks to Ryan “every day, but he can’t answer me back.”
“I look at old text messages on my phone just to see him answer back to me,” he said.
‘Two Young Lives Just Destroyed’
In statements of their own, the prosecution and defense presented contradictory impressions of the teenage killer.
“Mr. Morton has a history of violence,” Tom Grace, the assistant district attorney, told the judge, citing two previous juvenile incidents in which Morton was charged with assaulting another student. He argued for the maximum sentence possible under the charge: 20 to 40 years in prison.
“It appears, your honor, even when he’s under supervision or incarcerated he’s not capable of controlling himself,” Grace said.
Morton’s attorney, Patrick Thomassey, took a different view, telling the judge his client was “not a bad kid.”
“I have gotten to like this kid, judge, to tell you the truth. He tries to figure out every day what happened here, why did this happen,” Thomassey said. “There was no malice whatsoever between them.”
Echoing what he has told PEOPLE, Thomassey at the sentencing linked Morton’s behavior to broader cultural issues: “What he did afterwards is absolutely inexcusable. But this is this concept these kids have today. When something happens to them, the only way they can explain what to do is to save it.”
“Take the guns out of the equation, nobody is dead,” Thomssey said. “This is our society today, and all the gun-toters running around saying ‘the Second Amendment’ — it’s bad, and it’s going to get worse.”
Morton’s parents, who declined to comment to PEOPLE, supported him in court, where they also shared their grief over Ryan’s death. Morton’s dad said his previous fights had been the result of his being the victim of bullying and harassment.
“Ryan, he’s gone. Max is here, but he’s gone too. Two young lives just destroyed,” said Morton’s mother, Honey Morton. “I wish it never happened.”
‘Sorry Is What I Have to Give’
Speaking last before the judge announced her ruling, Morton said he knew that Ryan’s parents had not forgiven him. “I forgive them,” he said, “because I understand the pain, but I’m hurt too.”
“I wish I could change. I wish I could go back in time and wish for none of this to happen,” he said. “But sorry is what I have to give.”
Morton said the murder would not “define who I truly am” — a sentiment the judge focused on.
“I do have a concern about whether or not you value life and whether you respect life,” Bilik-DeFazio said. “And I hope you do.”
She added that she hopes he chooses the right path. “Because you will get released some day and you will have a life some day. You will have a life that Ryan doesn’t have an opportunity to have.”
Morton was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. His lawyer is appealing.
Attending the sentencing was “very hard,” George tells PEOPLE. Both he and Ryan’s mom say they doubt the sincerity of what Morton said.
But, Rebecca says, she is “thankful the judge realized the audacity of the crime.”