WILLIAMSBURG — State Senate candidate Debbie Medina, a longtime neighborhood tenant advocate, repeatedly hit her son with a belt during his childhood — information that was used to help him avoid the death penalty for the beating death of a 3-year-old child, she told DNAinfo New York in an exclusive interview.
Medina, 49, born and raised in Williamsburg's south side and a longtime tenant organizer for Los Sures, came forward after the Working Families Party uncovered the family history during its vetting process to decide on its nominee in the race against incumbent state Sen. Martin Dilan.
The Working Families Party, which endorsed Medina when she was narrowly defeated by Dilan in 2014, didn't respond immediately to a request for comment.
Medina initially downplayed the abuse, saying she'd only hit her son once with a belt. She eventually admitted she'd repeatedly struck her son as a desperate measure to keep the teen, who was increasingly acting out, doing drugs and getting arrested, from a worse fate.
"Yes. Whenever he was not doing what he was supposed to do," she said.
"I did everything I could to save my son. [If he was] running out in the street I punished him. Yes, I hit him. I had to do everything I [could] do to save my son."
"I was trying to hold onto him. This is my son, I'm his mother. I was crazy trying to keep my son alive."
The details of her son's childhood came to light in 2010 during his trial for the murder of Elijah Strickland, the 3-year-old son of his then girlfriend. Her son, Eugenio Torres, 30, is now serving life in prison without parole in Pennsylvania.
Torres was convicted of killing Elijah in 2008 after a night of drinking when he couldn't quiet him, Lehigh Valley Live reported.
The boy had extensive signs of abuse, including 90 bruises, cuts to his body, burns to his buttocks, a fractured skull and a liver laceration, prosecutors said.
Crime scene photos shown at trial depicted the boy's bloody socks strewn about the apartment and a bloody, white belt next to a SpongeBob SquarePants pillow, according to court papers.
Torres, who still maintains that Elijah's death was an accident, claimed that he had been playing with the boy in the tub when the boy swallowed water and stopped breathing.
When Torres scrambled to get the boy out of the bath, Elijah slipped out of his hands and fell, knocking his head and torso against the bathtub, according to Lehigh Valley Live.
The rest of the boy's injuries came when Torres tried unsuccessfully to administer CPR, the defense argued.
"It was an accident," Torres said when he was reached by phone at the State Correctional Institution at Frackville, a prison in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
"It was impossible that this happened with malice or anything in my heart."
Torres was convicted in 2010 and, in an effort avoid the death penalty, his defense attorneys dug into his past, hoping that the details would make jurors more sympathetic.
Torres had started smoking pot at age 13, went into rehab at 16 and suffered from depression, Lehigh Valley Live reported.
He was arrested and jailed for robbery and burglary in 2004 and 2007, police confirmed.
"I was using drugs ... [my mom] didn't want me in the house living that life," said Torres. "I was smoking angel dust. I was smoking weed."
He was slapped repeatedly for his missteps, he said.
"When I got a little bit bigger and the slaps didn't hurt no more, she hit me with a belt," said Torres, who estimated that his mother hit him about 25 times with a belt over his teenage years.
In 2003, Medina called Administration for Children's Services after she used a belt on Torres and he continued to be aggressive, she said. He was found with welts on his torso and bruises on his arm, according to Lehigh Valley Live. His parents refused to let him back into their home, then later relented.
ACS wouldn't confirm the account because of confidentiality laws.
Since her son has been in prison, they've mended fences and Torres said he didn't blame his mother for being physical with him growing up.
"The choices I made in life had nothing to do with my mother. Look at my mother's life and what she did and what she stands for," he said.
"This is a lifestyle that I chose to pick. But my mother, there's nobody that's like her in this world. She's a very strong woman."
Medina is hoping to win the Sept. 13 primary against DIlan.
Dilan has represented parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick, East New York, Cypress Hills and Brownsville since 2002. In the primary, Medina earned 42 percent of the vote, then she ran in the general election as a Working Families Party candidate and won 13.6 percent.
This time around, she's riding the momentum of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, getting a thumbs-up from the Democratic Socialist movement and receiving endorsements from U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, City Councilman Antonio Reynoso and the New Kings Democrats.
She was profiled by The Nation this spring.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story quoted Medina saying "I'm sorry" for hitting her son. She was apologizing to a reporter for incorrectly saying she had only hit her son once with a belt. She did not apologize for using a belt in the first place.