Before Thomas M. Szczesniak went out drinking with his friend and tenant Joseph Lawrence Jr. last Oct. 24, he tucked a loaded .40-caliber Smith & Wesson into a holster on his waistband.
Five hours later, before the two heavily intoxicated men got back in the house on Woodell Street to eat their takeout dinners, Szczesniak fatally shot his longtime friend.
He has been jailed ever since, and on Wednesday morning, State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang found Szczesniak, 54, guilty of second-degree murder for his reckless actions. The Cheektowaga landlord faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced Aug. 13.
In delivering her decision, Wolfgang said the prosecution had not proven there was enough intent to support either of the more-serious charges the defendant faced – second-degree murder or first-degree manslaughter.
Lawrence’s family members had been in the courtroom for most of the testimony during Szczesniak’s trial, and they were visibly and vocally upset by the judge’s decision.
“My brother was an innocent, unarmed man who was shot in cold blood,” Heather Shields said outside the courtroom. “This (Szczesniak) is a man who was upset and angry, and he took his anger out on my brother.”
She told reporters that, although her brother was Szczesniak’s tenant, Lawrence helped the other man more.
“My brother was a very kindhearted man, and he was the one who took the defendant under his wing. He (Szczesniak) didn’t have a stove and my brother cooked meals for him,” said Shields, adding, “(Lawrence) never hurt anybody.”
The family also praised the work of Assistant District Attorney Gary W. Hackbush, who prosecuted the case.
During the trial, next-door neighbors from Woodell Street testified that they heard a gunshot at about 7 p.m. Oct. 24 and immediately went outside to their second-story balcony. They saw Lawrence, 54, lying on the driveway of Szczesniak’s house and Szczesniak either standing or kneeling over him. When they asked if they should call an ambulance, Szczesniak reportedly said yes.
There were no witnesses to the shooting and no explanation was presented during the trial for how Szczesniak came to pull the trigger. The defendant did not take the stand, but first responders testified that he told them when they arrived on the scene that night that Szczesniak told them he had shot Lawrence, and during an interview with police a few hours later, he said he used his gun to protect himself.
Lawrence was shot once at close range in the lower abdomen. The bullet missed his major organs but severed a small artery. He died later that night in Erie County Medical Center.
After the verdict, defense attorney James Quinn Auricchio described the shooting as a tragic accident for which his client was clearly responsible, even though he did not want to kill his friend.
“If you have a beer in one hand, you shouldn’t have a gun in the other,” Auricchio said.