updated 9/12/2007 6:46:47 PM ET 2007-09-12T22:46:47

A divided appeals court Wednesday overturned the conviction and death sentence of a man condemned for killing and beheading his common-law wife’s three children.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said John Allen Rubio’s conviction and death sentence four years ago were improper because statements from his common-law wife, Angela Camacho, erroneously were allowed into evidence.

She refused to testify, so Rubio’s lawyers could not challenge Camacho’s statements by cross-examining her, the state’s highest criminal appeals court said. The decision sends the case back to trial court.

Three statements Camacho made about the slayings — two in writing and one on a videotape — were offered into testimony by a police officer at Rubio’s trial. The trial judge, over objections from Rubio’s lawyers, allowed the testimony.

“Given Camacho’s unique position as both accomplice to the crime and direct witness to (Rubio’s) motivations, her specific, detailed testimony obviously had great significance,” the court said.

The judges in the majority also noted Camacho herself was facing indictment for capital murder when she talked with police.

“Obviously, then, she could have been under some pressure to modify her story, given her own participation in the murders,” the court said. “That is precisely the type of issue (Rubio) was not able to address on cross-examination.”

Grisly details
Camacho and Rubio were accused of strangling and decapitating 3-year-old Julissa Quezada, 1-year-old John Esthefan Rubio and 2-month-old Mary Jane Rubio in March 2003. Camacho avoided a possible death sentence by taking a plea agreement two years ago that sent her to prison with three life terms.

Rubio, 27, admitted to killing the children but pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Psychiatrists testifying at his trial said Rubio’s chronic drug use, especially his inhaling of spray paint, contributed to the murders. Prosecutors blamed an overall life of depravity, including prostitution, drugs and a filthy apartment.

The appeals court said the wrongly admitted statements at trial did not automatically merit reversal, but they were the crucial evidence to rebut Rubio’s insanity defense.

“We can say that her statements likely contributed to the jury’s verdict of guilt, such that the error in admitting her statements at trial clearly prejudiced (Rubio’s) case,” the majority said.

A harmless error?
The dissenting judges said admitting Camacho’s statements into evidence was a harmless error because the jury decided Rubio was not legally insane.

“Mental illness can indeed excuse criminal conduct, but only for a narrow range of offenders,” presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote. “Given the evidence in this case, it seems clear to me that John Rubio is not within that range.”

Rubio’s lawyers raised 12 points of error from his trial. By overturning the conviction on the first point, the panel did not rule on the others and returned the case to the trial court.

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