Voters cast their ballots at City Hall during an election. (File photo)

The sharp sound of a gunshot woke Oscar de la Torre from his sleep.

“I ran to the kitchen window and I saw cars peeling out. They were leaving. There was a body on the ground,” de la Torre recalled at Los Angeles Superior Court Wednesday when he took the stand in a voting rights trial challenging Santa Monica’s system of government.

The activist was only a teenager the day he said he watched his friend take his last breath. It was 1989, and as soon as a neighbor told de la Torre he thought it was safe to go outside, the young men walked into the Pico Neighborhood street. De la Torre looked down, stunned to recognize the teenager who had just been shot.  He had known Juan Escobar since middle school.

De la Torre says Escobar was still gasping for air as more neighbors crept out of their apartments to see what had happened. The teenager bled from his stomach and from his back. Sirens screamed as three Santa Monica Police Department patrol cars rolled up to the scene.

De la Torre pulled his dying friend off the ground as the officers ran up. But instead of rendering medical aid, he says an officer immediately demanded to know the identity of the gunman.

“The police officer looked at me and said ‘if you don’t tell me who shot him, I’m not letting the ambulance get to him,’” de la Torre recalled to Judge Yvette Palazuelos. “I thought: our lives don’t matter.”

After weeks of anticipation, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School Board member finally took the stand in the controversial voting rights trial Wednesday, bringing decades of community activism, protests, legal wrangling and scandals to a head. Until now, the multi-million dollar legal battle over whether the city should create distinct districts has dwelled on the testimony of political scientists and statisticians.

The tone pivoted on Wednesday, as de la Torre’s graphic testimony painted a bleak picture of the poorest neighborhood of a beachfront city packed with celebrity glamour and million-dollar homes.  Sitting on the stand, de la Torre eagerly answered questions from his attorney Kevin Shenkman, an active parent in the school district who has either won or settled dozens of similar cases throughout California.  Santa Monica is only one of a handful of cities that have dared to challenge a suit using the California Voting Rights Act, which makes it easier for minorities to show at-large election systems make it too hard to get their candidates into city government.

“For me, this lawsuit is about fairness,” de la Torre said. “It’s about ensuring our community has more influence on who represents us…and to ensure we have a champion for issues that are important to us on the City Council so we can improve our quality of life.”

De la Torre has lived in Santa Monica for more than 40 years, moving to the Pico Neighborhood when he was six years old. Judge Palazuelos briefly smiled when Oscar said his only experience in the wealthy North of Montana neighborhood growing up was on Halloween when poor families headed there to trick-or-treat for the best candy.

Later, as a football player at Santa Monica High School, de la Torre would visit wealthy teammates there. He recalled one occasion when the neighborhood’s private security patrol slowly rolled by a gathering of white, black and Latino teammates.

“He slowed down, he looked at us, and he just rolled down his window and he said ‘Hey, how are you all doing?’” de la Torre said. De la Torre said a law enforcement officer had never asked him before how he was doing, but simply what he was doing. “It was a big eye-opener for me.”

Shenkman showed de la Torre photos of the Interstate 10 freeway, a recycling/trash-sorting facility, City Yards, and he confirmed they are all located in the Pico Neighborhood.

The 2011 state voting law was intended to make it easier for minority candidates to elect representatives from their own communities.  With a Latino population of just over 13 percent, attorneys for the city of Santa Monica argue districts would not enhance Latino voting power here. De la Torre’s lawyers have presented a hypothetical Pico Neighborhood District that is about 30 percent Latino, with the majority of Latino voters living outside the boundaries. Two current Councilmembers claim Latino heritage, Councilmember Tony Vazquez and Mayor Pro Tempore Gleam Davis.

De la Torre first ran for School Board in 2002, the same year he opened the Pico Youth and Family Center.  He’s continuously won re-election every year since, despite becoming embroiled in a number of scandals along the way. In 2011, a civilian oversight committee found “an unusual mixture of facts and advocacy” in an investigation into de la Torre relating to a fight at the youth center. De la Torre called the investigation a sham to discredit him. Two years later, the city pulled public funding from the PYFC amid accusations of financial discrepancies and duplicate paychecks.

In 2016, de la Torre ran for City Council and lost. During his testimony, de la Torre said he made a tactical decision to support Measure LV, a controversial slow-growth initiative opposed by incumbents. He claimed his support torpedoed his ability to fundraise and receive endorsements he has gotten in the past for school board.

The city claims de la Torre purposefully threw his election in 2016 to win the lawsuit.  De la Torre raised just $980 for his 2016 City Council race, after raising more than $14,000 in each of his prior campaigns.  He did not seek endorsements or send out mailers that year.

An attorney for the city of Santa Monica, Marcellus McRae, of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP, began cross-examination in the afternoon. The city has argued de la Torre’s testimony is self-defeating since he’s won four consecutive at-large elections for School Board.

McRae reviewed a number of mailers from the influential group Santa Monicans for Renters Rights over the years, showing they endorsed his candidacies for school board, as well as other minority candidates for various offices. He highlighted the number of endorsements de la Torre has received over the years.  He compared those endorsements to 2016, where de la Torre was quoted by a local newspaper saying he would not seek an endorsement from SMRR because he was “running a grassroots campaign.”

McRae repeatedly impeached de la Torre’s testimony, a courtroom tactic where an attorney shows inconsistency between a witness’s deposition testimony and what he says in front of the judge.  De la Torre admitted failing to seek endorsements in 2016 was a risk that could result in a loss.

Cross-examination will continue Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

Correction: an earlier version of this story erroneously reported de la Torre stepped down from the Pico Youth and Family Center. He never stepped down. City officials pulled public funding.

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press

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