updated 4/25/2007 11:45:03 AM ET 2007-04-25T15:45:03

The Supreme Court threw out death sentences for three Texas killers Wednesday because of problems with instructions given jurors who were deciding between life in prison and death.

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In the case of LaRoyce Lathair Smith, the court set aside the death penalty for the second time. It also reversed death sentences for Brent Ray Brewer and Jalil Abdul-Kabir.

The cases all stem from jury instructions that Texas hasn't used since 1991. Under those rules, courts have found that jurors were not allowed to give sufficient weight to factors that might cause them to impose a life sentence instead of death.

'Process is fatally flawed'
The three 5-4 rulings had the same lineup of justices, with Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter and John Paul Stevens forming the majority.

"When the jury is not permitted to give meaningful effect or a 'reasoned moral response' to a defendant's mitigating evidence...the sentencing process is fatally flawed," Stevens wrote in Abdul-Kabir's case

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Roberts took aim at his colleagues in the majority in dissents he wrote in the Abdul-Kabir and Brewer cases. The court should have deferred to lower court rulings against the defendants because there was no clearly established federal law that judges could have followed to grant relief.

"Whatever the law may be today, the Court's ruling that 'twas always so - and that state courts were 'objectively unreasonable' not to know it - is utterly revisionist," Roberts said.

Mistreatment, abuses factors
Smith was sentenced to die for the murder of Jennifer Soto, a former coworker at a Taco Bell who was stabbed and shot in a failed robbery.

In 2004, the justices overturned Smith's sentence because jurors were not allowed to consider sufficiently the abuse and neglect that Smith had suffered as a child.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reinstated the death penalty, however, saying any errors involving the jury instructions were harmless.

Abdul-Kabir, also known as Ted Calvin Cole, was convicted in 1988 of using a dog leash to strangle Raymond Richardson, 66, during a $20 robbery at his San Angelo home. Abdul-Kabir's lawyers contend the jury that condemned him had no way to take into account the mistreatment and abandonment that contributed to his violent adult behavior.

The same sentencing problems applied to Brewer, convicted of fatally stabbing 66-year-old Robert Laminack, who was attacked in 1990 outside his Amarillo flooring business and robbed of $140. Brewer was abused as a child and suffered from mental illness, factors his jurors weren't allowed to consider, according to his petition.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld the death penalty for Brewer and Abdul-Kabir.

Forty-seven inmates on Texas' death row were sentenced under the rules that the state abandoned in 1991.

The cases are Smith v. Texas, 05-11304, Brewer v. Quarterman, 05-11287, and Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 05-11284.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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