Guilty verdict in Columbia torture case

June 24, 2008 4:49:12 PM PDT
An ex-convict was found guilty Tuesday in the rape and torture of a Columbia University graduate student who survived 19 hours of nightmarish sadism in which he scalded her with boiling water and attempted to blind her with bleach before trying to burn her to death.Robert Williams was convicted of attempted murder, rape, kidnapping, arson and other charges in the attack, which was so prolonged and agonizing that the victim begged her tormentor to kill her and later tried to kill herself.

The verdict followed a trial that featured the victim's horrifying testimony that Williams, besides raping and sodomizing her, made her swallow fistfuls of painkillers, ordered her to gouge out her eyes with scissors, sealed her lips with super glue and gagged her with duct tape before torching her apartment.

Williams, 31, was found guilty of all but two of 46 counts. He was not in court to hear the verdict read. The judge said that when he was told the jury had reached its verdict, he turned over in his courthouse cell and continued napping.

Williams, who previously served eight years in prison for attempted murder, faces life in prison when he is sentenced July 24.

Defense lawyer Arnold Levine said Williams had been uncommunicative from the beginning of the case and showed no reaction when told what the verdict was.

"Basically he didn't say anything," Levine said. "He didn't have any more reaction to that than he has had to anything else."

The victim and her relatives sat in the front row of the courtroom while the jury foreman pronounced Williams guilty 44 times, but they showed no reaction to the verdict. The victim's father, on behalf of the family, declined to comment.

When the trial began June 5, Assistant District Attorney Ann Prunty told jurors Williams had violated the victim "in every way imaginable - and in some ways unimaginable," then tried to finish her off by burning her alive.

The evidence against Williams included DNA from the victim found on a shirt he was wearing when he was arrested and DNA from him on one of the woman's T-shirts.

His DNA was also on the victim's iPod earbuds Prunty said he kept as a "trophy." The victim also identified him in court.

The woman told teary jurors that Williams doused her with boiling water that caused second- and third-degree burns and permanent scarring over her body and slit her eyelids during the torture in her upper Manhattan apartment.

She said that after he slashed her eyelids, he began "beating my face, my eye sockets, with the blunt end of the knife," and she screamed until she blacked out.

She said Williams also hung her by her arms in a painful position in a closet so that her feet could not touch the floor while he went out to steal her money.

The woman said Williams tried to withdraw her money from ATMs but refused to write down the personal identification numbers, forgot which number went with which account and failed to get any cash. Frustrated, he returned and attacked her again.

Prunty credited the victim's intelligence and mental toughness with helping her survive, despite the emotional and physical pain.

She said the woman, who was a journalism student, began deliberately making mental notes.

The victim testified that her first inkling that she might come out of the ordeal alive came when she saw Williams gathering her electronics and other things as if preparing to steal them and leave.

She said she started memorizing features and scars of her torturer while trying to connect with him - even asking about his taste in music - and trying to convince him she wouldn't identify him to authorities.

Tied up and left unconscious to die in a fire her attacker set in her apartment, the woman woke up and used the flames to burn through some of her restraints and escape what might have become her crematorium.

Prunty said Williams fled when his victim fell unconscious because he no longer had the sadistic pleasure of hearing her cry and scream when he hurt her.

The nearly three-week trial was unusual in that the defendant was in court just once for a few hours. He was forced to show up on the day the victim testified and pointed him out to the jury as her rapist and torturer.

During pretrial motions and hearings, Levine tried unsuccessfully to have Williams declared mentally unfit to stand trial. The lawyer said Williams consistently refused to speak to him or mental health professionals.