WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court overturned the death sentences for three Texas murderers yesterday, ruling that jurors were not given a fair chance to spare them given their mental difficulties and histories of childhood abuse.
In a series of 5-4 votes, the court pointed to the flaws in the Texas capital sentencing system before 1991. The rulings are likely to lead to new sentencing hearings for a handful of Texas death-row inmates who were given death sentences under the old system.
Until Texas was forced to revise its law in 1991, jurors there were given only two questions when deciding whether a convicted killer would receive a death sentence or a life term in prison. Was the murder "deliberate," and did the killer represent a "continuing threat" to society? If the jury agreed on a "yes" answer to both, the defendant received a death sentence.
In the late 1970s, however, the Supreme Court had said jurors must be permitted to weigh any "mitigating factor" in a defendant's life or character as a reason to spare him from a death sentence. Nonetheless, the justices upheld the Texas system at the time, even though it left little or no room for jurors to weigh this mitigating evidence.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer formed the majority in all three decisions.