Cheektowaga landlord claims self-defense in tenant's death

Jun 22, 2015

The murder trial of a Cheektowaga landlord accused of killing his upstairs tenant started on Monday.

Fifty-four-year-old Thomas Szczesniak allegedly shot Joseph Lawrence in the stomach in October 2014. Lawrence, 54, was taken to Erie County Medical Center and died during surgery.

Previously, Szczesniak told detectives Lawrence had called to report that someone broke the lock on the outside first-floor door to his Woodell Avenue home. The two men drank at a local bar later that evening. They quarreled and Szczesniak said he shot Lawrence out of self-defense.

Defense attorney Jeremy Schwartz said the two men’s drinking doesn’t mean Szczesniak killed Lawrence. He also added the two men had known each other for more than 40 years and Lawrence considered Szczesniak a friend.

“It was a fuzzy night. It was a fuzzy night for both of them,” Schwartz said. “You’ll hear that Joe was intoxicated. You’ll hear that Tom was intoxicated. But you’re not going to hear any evidence that Tom intentionally attempted to kill Joe. That wasn’t his intent. The evidence is not going to show that.”

While the alcohol may not provide evidence, prosecutor Gary Hackbush said an hour-and-a-half police interrogation video doesn’t support Szczesniak’s claim of self-defense.

“The defendant admitted that he shot Joe Lawrence,” Hackbush said. “However, he maintained that he acted in self defense because he feared for his life. Please note though throughout that hour and a half video interview you will see that the defendant could not describe anything to support his claim of justification.”

Hackbush said Szczesniak admitted Lawrence did not have a weapon and did not verbally threaten his life. Hackbush also said the defendant could not describe the argument he had with Lawrence before he shot him, but instead, would repeat that Lawrence was bigger than he was.

State Supreme Court Judge Penny Wolfgang is hearing the non-jury trial. If convicted of the crime, Szczesniak could spend 25 to life in prison.