When James Anthony Williams essentially received a life sentence for murder Thursday, it wasn't clear to anyone in the courtroom whether...

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When James Anthony Williams essentially received a life sentence for murder Thursday, it wasn’t clear to anyone in the courtroom whether he could fully grasp what was happening.

The slight 50-year-old with a long history of mental illness sniffled, snorted, violently twitched his head and droned on about Jesus Christ, his grandmother and Shannon Harps, the victim he selected at random on New Year’s Eve 2007.

Williams, who had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder with a deadly weapon last week, was then handed a prison term of about 35 years.

Williams fatally stabbed Harps, 31, just outside her Capitol Hill apartment building.

Harps’ family and others who didn’t even know the victim addressed King County Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson during the sentencing, urging that Williams receive the maximum time possible.

Ron Harps said he has nightmares about seeing his youngest daughter being murdered. The Florida man said that his life has been “absolute unequivocal hell” since the slaying.

“To this day, it is unthinkable that our own little girl who became such a kind, caring and strong woman, is no longer with us,” he testified in court. “No matter what sentence you hand down to James A. Williams today, my wife and I have been given a life sentence also.”

Williams had apparently been targeting women with his bizarre antics on the night of the slaying. Beth Kirschbaum, who lived near Harps, said Williams threw a beer cap at her and tried to start a fight before turning his attention on Harps.

“You may not remember, but I will never forget; you looked at me twice that night. First you threw a beer cap at me and nearly got a rise out of me … but I ran away,” Kirschbaum said to Williams. “You looked at me again as you walked away from her body and I walked toward her to comfort her in her last moments.”

Both Kirschbaum and Joe Mirabella, who heard Harps’ screams and also ran to help, have grown close with Harps’ family though they only knew the victim for a few seconds.

“Shannon doesn’t get to walk this earth again. She doesn’t get to go for hikes or buy flowers at the market down the street or tell anyone she loves them one more time. You took that from her and from all of us,” Kirschbaum said.

Williams spent minutes reading unintelligibly from notes scrawled in big blue print. With encouragement from his attorney, Kevin McConnell, he turned toward the Harps family and issued an apology.

“I hate myself. I loathe myself. I will be suffering in eternal shame the rest of my life,” Williams said. “If I wasn’t so mentally ill it wouldn’t have happened.”

At the time of the slaying, Williams was being supervised under the state’s Dangerous Mentally Ill Offender program. He testified Thursday that he was begging mental-health experts for help before the slaying but that they didn’t listen.

Williams had been released from prison in 2006 after serving an 11-year sentence for randomly shooting a man at a bus stop.

He had a host of violations in the 20 months between his release from prison and Harps’ slaying. But despite concerns from judges, social workers and parole officers, he was a free man the night she was killed.

Since the slaying, Harps’ family and friends have started a nonprofit, The Green Shanny Foundation, to honor her passion for environmental education and green energy. Harps had a job as an organizer for the Sierra Club when she was killed.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.