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In emotional sentencing, the maximum prison term

Joseph P. Lawrence Jr. wasn’t just the victim of a tragic shooting. He was a man whose friendships “meant more to him than riches.”

That is what his mother said Wednesday before the sentencing of the man who killed him. She also noted that the affection was returned. More than 700 people attended his wake last fall, she said, and his funeral was standing room only.

“That is the magnitude of what the defendant took away from us,” Nancy Kimbrough told the judge as Thomas M. Szczesniak stood, head bowed, awaiting his sentence for Lawrence’s death last fall.

With a group of family and friends behind her, Kimbrough asked State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang to impose the maximum sentence for Szczesniak’s second-degree manslaughter conviction.

Wolfgang complied.

The judge initially was going to sentence the Cheektowaga landlord to a determinate term of 15 years, but after a brief recess with attorneys for both sides to discuss the allowable range for the charge, she sentenced the 54-year-old defendant to a term of five to 15 years, the maximum.

Szczesniak shot Lawrence, 54, his friend and tenant, on the evening of Oct. 24 outside his side door after the two had spent a long afternoon drinking. Szczesniak had been upset earlier because someone had drilled out the locks on the house – it turned out to be part of a bank foreclosure process – and he was carrying a loaded .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun all day. After the men returned home from the bars, Lawrence was shot once at close range and collapsed in the driveway of the Woodell Avenue house.

Szczesniak stayed at Lawrence’s side while neighbors called for help, and he admitted to first responders that he had fired the shot. During his trial, it was never revealed why Szczesniak pulled out his weapon that night. Moments before the shot, the men were heading back into the house to eat some takeout dinners, and no one heard any arguing.

On Wednesday, a remorseful Szczesniak, who has been in custody since the shooting, apologized for his actions.

“Any sentence you impose will not equal the pain I will feel the rest of my life,” he told the judge.

Prior to Szczesniak’s statement, prosecutor Gary W. Hackbush pointed out that the defendant had taken a gun safety course to get a permit for his weapon and knew the dangers of carrying it. He noted that Szczesniak had a prior conviction for driving while intoxicated in 1999 and was carrying the gun at the time of that arrest, too.

And Hackbush said that when Szczesniak was arrested and interviewed, and throughout the investigation, he referred to Lawrence only as his “tenant,” not as his friend – up until the time he was convicted.

In her statement, Kimbrough also disputed any claims that Szczesniak genuinely cared about her son, and she paraphrased a statement that he made in his first interview with police, when he claimed the two had been arguing and said, “He was twice my size, so I shot him.”

“If there was a friendship here, it was a one-way street,” Kimbrough said fiercely.

She also reflected on how her loss affects the books she reads, the television shows she watches and how she reacts to the news. Whenever she hears of another shooting, she said, her heart goes out to the families.

“Senseless gun violence has got to stop,” she stated in a strong voice, and then she bitterly recounted the circumstances of her son’s death.

“(Szczesniak) was looking for trouble. He had a gun. My son did not. He shot an unsuspecting, unarmed individual at close range.”

She recalled how defense attorney James Quinn Auricchio said at one point that a bullet to the abdomen is “not a kill shot.”

“Well, it killed my son,” she said.

Lawrence was still alive when he was taken by ambulance to Erie County Medical Center after the shooting and was being prepped for surgery when he died. The bullet did not struck any vital organs, but it had severed a small artery.

“We’ve said it many times before,” Wolfgang said before sentencing. “A person should never be drinking with a loaded weapon on him. Period.”