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Judge to weigh evidence in murder trial of Cheektowaga landlord

The defense called only one witness in the trial of a Cheektowaga man who admitted to police that he shot his tenant in their driveway last October.

A neighbor who heard the gunshot testified that, from her upstairs porch, she could hear Thomas M. Szczesniak talking to the fatally wounded Joseph Lawrence Jr. outside their house next door. She said it sounded like Szczesniak was asking Lawrence, “Were you shot?”

Szczesniak, 54, did not take the stand in the three-day bench trial before State Supreme Court Judge Penny M. Wolfgang. However, the defendant’s voice was heard in statements he made to Cheektowaga police in the hours after Lawrence, 54, was found collapsed in the driveway of the house on Woodell Avenue.

In his statements, Szczesniak said the two men had argued and he fired his weapon in self-defense.

Earlier this week, first responders testified that when they arrived on the scene and asked what happened, Szczesniak replied, “I shot him.”

During his closing summation, defense attorney James Auricchio suggested that his client may not even have been the one to pull the trigger, but if he was, it was not because he intended to kill his friend.

He mentioned testimony that showed Lawrence was shot once in the right side of the abdomen and the bullet traveled downward to the left, missing all his internal organs but severing an artery.

“I would submit to you that that man (Szczesniak) with that weapon would know that this was not a ‘kill shot,’ ” Auricchio told the judge.

He added that, had the defendant been intent on murder, he would have fired more than once, rather than bending over Lawrence, as witnesses testified, and staying with him until an ambulance arrived.

In the hours before the shooting, the two men and a third friend had spent several hours drinking in a neighborhood bar. Lawrence’s blood-alcohol level was 0.22 percent at the time of his death, a medical expert said, and Auricchio argued that his client likely was similarly intoxicated, which could have affected his ability to understand his actions.

Although neighbors came outside immediately after hearing the gunshot, no one testified about hearing an argument or seeing the shooting.

After granting requests from the defense and prosecutor Gary W. Hackbush, Wolfgang also will consider manslaughter in the first or second degree along with the murder charge. She is set to issue her decision Wednesday.