BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Thomas Szczesniak could spend up to the next 15 years in prison after he was found guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter in the shooting death of his friend and tenant, Joseph Lawrence, last October. Lawrence’s family members are outraged by the outcome of the bench trial in State Supreme Court that was announced on Wednesday.
“You have got to be kidding me!” one of Lawrence’s family members shouted in the courtroom after Justice Penny Wolfgang announced that she had found Szczesniak guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter and remanded him to jail until his sentencing.
Szczesniak had originally been indicted on a 2nd degree murder charge after shooting and killing Joseph Lawrence in their shared driveway in Cheektowaga last October. But, during the bench trial, Justice Wolfgang agreed to also consider charges of first degree manslaughter or second degree manslaughter in this case.
Authorities say Szczesniak and Lawrence had been drinking all day, and they say Szczesniak admitted to the EMTs who arrived on the scene that he had shot Lawrence. The prosecutors in this case contended that the men had an argument in the driveway and Szczesniak pulled out his gun and fired. But, Szczesniak’s lawyers say the shooting was accidental.
In reading out the verdict on Wednesday, Justice Wolfgang said there wasn’t enough evidence to show that that Szczesniak intended to hurt or kill his friend. The second degree manslaughter conviction reflects that. It means that Szczesniak has been found responsible for his friend’s death, but that he did not mean to do it.
“Carrying a gun while intoxicated is a reckless act with a tragic outcome,” Justice Wolfgang said.
Lawrence’s family insists Szczesniak was more than just reckless when he pulled the trigger.
“How in God’s name you can use ‘I had a few drinks’ as a defense to murder is beyond me,” Joseph Lawrence’s sister, Heather Shields, said after leaving the courtroom Wednesday. “I don’t know why she came up with the verdict she did. It is beyond me. Because in my mind, it would have been manslaughter one at the least.”
Szczesniak’s lawyers say they understand why Lawrence’s family is upset, but this verdict is the right one.
“We did not believe that there was intent in this case and that’s why we went to trial,” one of his defense attorneys, Jeremy Schwartz, said.
“We all want to think that life can’t be taken by something as foolish and stupid and reckless as this, and when it is, it’s upsetting. It’s tragic. But that’s precisely what happened here,” said Szczesniak’s other attorney, James Quinn Auricchio.
Szczesniak could theoretically be sentenced to as little as probation or as much as a decade and a half behind bars when he is sentenced August 13. He is being held without bail until then.