Surprise confession in 1988 murder of Palo Alto attorney

There was a shocking development today in a South Bay murder trial when the defendant, who previously had not admitted any guilt or said more than a few words publicly, changed his plea to guilty and dramatically

addressed the victim's family, according to the case's prosecutor.

Tyrone Hamel, 41, admitted to killing Palo Alto attorney Gretchen Burford during at robbery attempt at a Mountain View automated teller machine Feb. 26, 1988.

“This was a huge, huge surprise,'' Deputy District Attorney Dana Overstreet said. “I was certainly taken aback.''

Hamel was charged in June 2005, after work by the district attorney's office soon to be disbanded cold case unit linked him to Burford's slaying. At the time he was serving a sentence of life plus 60 years in Texas for subsequent crimes.

Hamel previously waived his right to a jury trial and Superior Court Judge Jerome Brock would have decided his guilt or innocence before this morning's guilty plea.

Since being extradited to California, Hamel had never shown any sign of remorse over Burford's killing until today. He addressed four members of Burford's family who were in court this morning despite Brock wanting him to wait until his formal sentencing.

“He went on for almost five minutes not only admitting guilt but expressing extreme remorse,'' Overstreet said.

Hamel said he had not undergone any type of religious conversion that prompted his confession but that the killing had been weighing on his mind for the past 20 years, according to Overstreet.

Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty for Hamel due to the wishes of Burford's family. Burford was a criminal defense attorney and did not believe in capital punishment, according to Overstreet.

“(Hamel) thanked the family today for sparing his life,'' Overstreet said.

A defendant changing his plea during a trial or on the eve or a verdict is not unheard of, according to Overstreet.

“It happens but usually when the defendant perceives he's going to get some sort of advantage,'' such as a lighter sentence or better housing in prison, Overstreet said.

Hamel made his change of plea without any deal or promise from prosecutors. In fact he will not be imprisoned in California but will now be returned to Texas to serve out his life sentence, Overstreet said.

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