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Dramatic testimony in NYC rape-torture case

Her voice never faltered as she described an attack so demonic that at one point, she begged to die.
Image: Robert Williams
Robert Williams is accused of the rape and torture of a Columbia University graduate student. He faces life in prison if convicted. NYPD via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Her voice never faltered as she described an attack so demonic that at one point, she begged to die.

With poise and precision, the 24-year-old woman told jurors this week about being raped repeatedly, scalded with boiling water and slashed across her eyelids during 19 unthinkable hours in her Upper Manhattan apartment. She paused to compose herself once, briefly, during six hours of testimony that made some jurors dab at their eyes.

The resolute, clear-thinking woman on the witness stand had shown the same traits during her ordeal. She memorized details about her torturer while trying to elicit his empathy — even asking about his taste in music — and trying to convince him she wouldn’t identify him to authorities. Drugged, bound and left to die in a fire her attacker set, the Columbia University graduate student managed to use the flames to burn through some of her restraints and escape what might have become her crematorium.

The details stunned many in the courtroom and led others to wonder how she had survived, let alone how she could provide such vivid testimony.

A strategy to survive
But experts say the case illustrates the mental toughness some rape victims can summon and a tactic some use to survive: They try to connect with their attackers in the hope of awakening compassion or gathering clues.

“When your life is at stake, you're going to get resources you never even knew you had,” says Madeline Lee Bryer, a New York lawyer who represents rape victims in civil cases. She started her practice after being attacked in the 1970s.

The man accused of attacking the former graduate student is Robert Williams, 31, on trial on kidnapping, rape, arson and other charges. Williams, who previously served eight years in prison for attempted murder, faces a possible life sentence if convicted in the April 2007 assault.

Williams’ lawyer, Arnold Levine, argued unsuccessfully that his client was mentally unfit to stand trial. He did not present an opening statement, did not cross-examine the victim, and he has not said what kind of defense he is planning.

Prosecutors say Williams’ DNA was found on the victim and her clothing, her DNA was found on his clothing, and security camera images show Williams trying to withdraw money with the woman's ATM card.

The victim expressed no doubt that Williams was her torturer as she pointed him out in court Monday. She testified that she had taken mental snapshots of his scars and even his gold left canine tooth, focusing on features she thought would best help police identify him.

Prosecutors and victims’ advocates say rape victims vary widely in their ability to retain details of the crime. For many, identifying the rapist isn’t an issue; federal studies have shown about 80 percent of victims, unlike the Columbia student, know their attackers.

But stress can sharpen memories, making them “more salient and lasting,” said New York University psychology and neuroscience professor Elizabeth A. Phelps.

Details hard to forget
The details of the graduate student's rape are hard for anyone to forget. The woman testified that after Williams followed her off an elevator and claimed to be looking for a nonexistent neighbor, he strong-armed his way into her fifth-floor apartment.

He ordered her to take off her clothes and he raped her immediately. He went on to throw bleach at her eyes and glue her lips together, forced her to hack off her hair and swallow fistfuls of painkillers, and ordered her to gouge out her eyes with scissors, she said. He hurled boiling water and bleach at her when she refused, she said.

Prosecutor say Williams started the fire and left only after the victim had passed out from pain. They said they think he left then only because he was no longer able to exercise power over another human being.

The woman suffered burns, liver failure and other injuries that led to weeks in hospitals and months of physical therapy.

During the assault, she screamed and sobbed in fear and agony, implored him to kill her and tried to impale her neck with a pair of scissors to end her life herself.

But she also strategized, telling Williams she wouldn't call police and pretending the bleach had blinded her, she said. To convince him, she said, she made sure not to avoid obstacles as he dragged her around the apartment.

Trying to make personal contact
The woman also tried to make personal contact with the rapist.

When a Bob Dylan song popped up on her iPod as Williams rifled through her electronics, the victim asked whether he liked the singer-songwriter, she testified.

Williams gruffly replied that he didn't know who Dylan was, she said.

Later, when she asked her attacker his name, he told her to shut up.

“I wanted to have some kind of human contact, so he wouldn't kill me,” she explained.

She even deployed some dark sarcasm, at one point asking if he was still looking for the bogus neighbor.

“I just wanted to remind him that he broke into my apartment and started raping me,” she testified.

While some rape victims freeze in fear, others — as the graduate student did — try to engage their attackers.

In a 1992 case in Queens, a Korean divinity student exchanged telephone numbers with her rapist. She called the next day, arranged to meet him, lured him into a cab with a Korean driver — and told the cabbie in Korean to call police.

But victims who engage their rapists also can complicate a case, sometimes forcing prosecutors to convince jurors that the victims’ friendly gestures were a ruse, said Marjorie Fisher, head of the Queens district attorney's sex-crimes division.

“There are many things that rape victims do that might seem counterintuitive,” she said this week. “But you have to think hard about, ‘What would I do in that situation?’”