The compulsion to be on social media at all times of the day can be overpowering (take it from someone whose phone is never, at any point, more than two feet away from her), and last week, a 16-year-old found out just how disastrous social media activity can be. After fatally shooting his friend in the face and then sharing a photo of himself with the victim's corpse on a popular photo messaging app, first-degree murder charges have been levied against the Pennsylvania teenager for the Snapchat selfie with the murder victim.
On Friday, a Pennsylvania court arraigned Maxwell Marion Morton on charges of first-degree murder, homicide, and possession of a firearm by a minor. Morton, from Jeannette, a Pittsburgh suburb, is being charged as an adult and is currently being held in prison without bail. The teen allegedly shot a classmate, Ryan Mangan, in the face, took a Snapchat selfie with his body, and posted it on the app designed for sharing pictures of videos for seconds at a time before self-destructing. But one of the recipients of the photo Morton sent quickly took a screenshot of it and showed it to his mother, who then contacted the authorities. Police used the screenshot to charge him with the murder, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
The paper reported that a police affidavit described the screenshot:
[Police] received a copy of the photo which depicted the victim sitting in the chair with a gunshot wound to the face. It also depicts a black male taking the "selfie," with his face facing the camera and the victim behind the actor. The photo had the name "Maxwell" across the top.
Morton confessed to the killing after police searched his home Friday and found a 9 mm handgun stashed under the basement staircase, according to the affidavit. District Attorney John Peck told the Tribune-Review that though he had never witnessed a case involving the murderer taking a self-portrait with the victim, the photo proved vital:
I've never seen [such a situation] before, but it was a key piece of evidence that led investigators to the defendant.
On top of that, the teenager allegedly sent a friend — who also received the Snapchat photo — text messages saying "Told you I cleaned up the shells" and "Ryan was not the last one."
Dumbfounding as Morton's actions were, a look to the teen's psychological state might answer some questions. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and a psychology and social media instructor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, told the Tribune-Review that she could not specifically speak to Morton's case, not knowing it well enough. But, she added:
This is really a question about criminal pathology rather than technology. Perpetrators in need of validating their power and sense of self-importance have used all kinds of communications to ‘brag’ about criminal activities — from the local hangout to social media like Facebook.
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