updated 6/6/2008 4:12:31 PM ET 2008-06-06T20:12:31

An ex-convict went on trial Thursday on charges of raping, torturing and burning a Columbia University graduate student in a 19-hour attack during which her eyelids were slit and she was forced to take so many painkillers that her liver failed.

Robert Williams, 31, sat with chained arms and legs, his head lowered, as the prosecutor delivered an opening statement that left several people in the courtroom weeping.

Williams turned the victim's small one-bedroom apartment into "his torture chamber" and violated the 23-year-old woman "in every way imaginable and in some ways unimaginable," Assistant District Attorney Ann Prunty told the jury.

Prunty said Williams stopped the torture only after the victim — who at one point during the ordeal tried to kill herself — blacked out from hours of pain caused by knife wounds, boiling water, battering and sexual assaults.

"Then he could no longer feel power over another human being," Prunty said.

Life in prison if convicted
Williams is charged with kidnapping, arson, burglary and sexual assault. He faces life in prison if convicted.

The defendant's lawyer, Arnold Levine, tried but failed to have Williams declared mentally unfit for trial. Levine did not make an opening statement.

The victim, a Columbia University journalism graduate student, found Williams in her building's elevator in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan when she came home around 9:30 p.m. on April 13, 2007, Prunty said. She said he followed her to her fifth-floor apartment and attacked her.

During the brutal ordeal, Prunty told jurors, Williams raped the victim, poured boiling water over her, hurled a pot of bleach in her face, ordered her to gouge out her own eyes with a pair of scissors, sealed her lips shut with glue and duct tape and slit her eyelids with a butcher's knife.

After one assault, he forced the woman to swallow a fistful of pills from her medicine cabinet and wash them down with four beers, Prunty said.

Doctors later said the woman's liver had failed, probably because of the medicine, and that a liver transplant might be necessary. Fortunately, the transplant was not needed, Prunty said.

The woman at one point tried to plunge a pair of scissors into her own neck in a bid to commit suicide.

After about 19 hours, Prunty said, Williams tied the naked, unconscious woman to a futon with computer cables and set it on fire. The woman awoke and smelled smoke, broke free and made her way to the hallway, where she was rescued.

Prunty said Williams' DNA was found on the victim and her clothing, and her DNA was found on his clothing. Security cameras captured him trying to withdraw money with the woman's ATM card, she said.

During the time she was conscious, Prunty said, the victim studied Williams closely. Prunty said every scar and feature she later described to police matched the appearance of the defendant.

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