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Cheektowaga man convicted of 2nd-degree manslaughter in friend’s slaying

A Cheektowaga man who shot his friend last October in the driveway of the house they shared is guilty of second degree manslaughter, a judge has ruled.

Thomas M. Szczesniak, 54, never took the stand during his bench trial before State Supreme Court Judge Penny M. Wolfgang, but first responders on the scene of the shooting last Oct. 24 testified that Szczesniak admitted immediately that he had shot his friend and tenant, Joseph Lawrence Jr., also 54.

Lawrence was shot once in the lower abdomen by a weapon pressed against him. The bullet went downward and severed an artery. He died later that night at Erie County Medical Center.

The victim’s friends and family packed Wolfgang’s courtroom Wednesday morning and many were visibly upset over the judge’s decision. Wolfgang said she found insufficient evidence to show the defendant intended to kill Lawrence. She also pointed out the recklessness of carrying a weapon while being drunk.

“My brother was an innocent, unarmed man who was shot in cold blood,” Lawrence’s sister Heather Shields said outside the courtroom. “How you can use ‘He had a few drinks’ as a defense for this is beyond me.”

Szczesniak was originally charged with the more serious offense of second degree murder and the judge also had the option of finding him guilty of first-degree manslaughter.

Testimony showed the two men had been drinking together for hours that afternoon of Oct. 24 and were heading back into their house on Woodell Avenue with take-out dinners when neighbors heard the gunshot. No explanation has been given for why Szczesniak pulled the trigger. Szczesniak faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced. He has been jailed since the shooting and remains in custody without bail.