Nothing took very long. Not the abduction. Not the gun-waving drive from Adelphi into Northwest Washington. Certainly not the cruel sex in the back seat.

But in the lives of the rapist, the woman he raped and her former boyfriend, there is nothing but aftermath.

"On the night of October 18, 1997, I was robbed of my soul by a stranger," wrote the woman to D.C. Superior Court Judge Rufus G. King III. "Months afterward, I felt like a rag doll--limp, lifeless, dead. There's not a day that I don't think about what happened."

King's duty on Friday, four months after a jury convicted Michael L. West Jr. of first-degree rape, was to find the right mix of words and punishment to console the victim and condemn the defendant.

The judge could hardly have been confronted with deeper emotions or more widely diverging arguments.

On one side, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy J. Conway, calling West's actions "ruthless" and his courtroom defense "absurd" and "sadistic," asked King to sentence the 29-year-old defendant to life in prison without parole.

On the other side, Public Defender Service attorney Christopher Swaby described West as a "loving and caring man" innocent of the charges. He urged the minimum sentence of five to 15 years.

King had heard the evidence. He had read letters, personality studies and pages of arguments. Before him, West stood at the defense table. The victim, a Howard University graduate and former law student, sat in the front row.

The case against the Silver Spring man was strong, even though the woman could not identify the masked man who raped her on a weekend when her boyfriend intended to propose marriage and she intended to say yes.

Tyrone Patterson told police he was with his friends Mike West and Jamal A. Higgs that night. They decided to go to a D.C. strip club. When Higgs said he didn't have enough money, West said, "We'll go get some."

Higgs, then 19, told police that he and West first robbed a taxi driver in Adelphi. A few minutes later, they spotted a man and a woman in a Honda Accord, making love.

Mask in place, West tapped on the Honda window with his 9mm Ruger pistol. As her boyfriend got out, the woman--The Post does not identify sexual assault victims--said she was afraid. Her boyfriend told her to stay in the car, for her protection. West and Higgs robbed the man, demanded his car keys and roared off in the Honda.

"The last image I saw of her that night was her terrified look when I got out of the car, and hearing her say, 'Don't leave me!' " wrote the man.

"I had no control over the situation, but she never forgave me for it," the man wrote. "And to be totally honest with you, Judge King, it's hard for me to forgive myself for it, either."

West drove toward the District as the woman, then 32 and in town for her Howard reunion, prayed and hid her rings in the cracks of the back seat. She worried what the news of her death would mean to her parents and her boyfriend.

Once in the District, West climbed into the back seat and forced himself on the woman, according to Higgs and the woman. Then West forced her to perform oral sex on Higgs.

Then they let her out on upper 16th Street NW. The next day, Higgs burned the car.

At the hospital that night, feeling alone and frightened about AIDS and pregnancy, the woman called home.

"For the first time in my life, I heard my mother weep," she wrote King. "Hours later, [my boyfriend] arrived. He had not been told about the rape. I had to break the news and for the second time that night, I heard another human being weep for me."

FBI examiners said DNA on the woman's clothing was a match for West. At the trial, West told jurors that the woman was a stranger with whom he had sex at a party. His story diverged from much other evidence. The jury convicted West of two counts of rape and two other charges. Letters and pleas soon flowed to the judge. Some cited West's drug-dealing past and his flight from a halfway house, while others attested to good character.

"Please, your honor, I'm begging you please, please, please don't take my daughter's and my life away from us," his wife Leslie wrote. "Please, we need him so bad. It hurts so much, I could die to think I might lose him."

From jail, West maintained his innocence in perfect penmanship and less than perfect spelling.

"I'm a loving son, a caring husband, a funny and adorable father, an over-protective brother, a heartwarming nephew and a kid-at-heart uncle! But, most of all, I'm a human being with morales, intellegence and a conscious. . . . I'm without a shadow of a doubt in the percentage of those people that shouldn't be incarcerated."

At Friday's hearing, Conway, the U.S. attorney, noted that West was entitled to contest the charges, but she objected that the defense treated the victim "as some kind of whore."

The prosecutor said the woman and her former boyfriend--the romance did not survive the ordeal-- are "two of the bravest and strongest people whom I have ever met. I want them to know that this was not their fault, that they did nothing wrong."

West spoke, taking issue with "the way she's making me out to be such a devil." He said he wanted to "stay up here and speak" until he convinced everyone in the courtroom that he did not deserve life without parole.

Then came King's turn. The judge talked in a slow baritone to West and a crowded gallery, explaining his reasoning.

He said West's premeditated search for cash through robbery showed "callousness," while calling the carjacking and rape a "crime of opportunity." The judge echoed the prosecutor in telling the woman and her former boyfriend that they bear no responsibility for the awfulness of that night. He said the crime "just happened to you, like a piano falling out of a window."

In mulling whether to impose the court's longest possible prison term, King credited West with stopping short of murder in a city where hundreds of people use guns to settle scores and silence witnesses. He said the sentence must reflect "balance and perspective."

With that, the judge sentenced West to 31 years to life and ordered him to pay $1,500 to the woman, $1,600 to her boyfriend and $500 to the District's crime victims fund.

West, if he behaves, will be eligible for parole in about 2026.