A man condemned for killing and beheading his common-law wife's three children had his conviction overturned Wednesday by a divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

In a 5-4 ruling, the state's highest criminal appeals court 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 court said.

Three statements she 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."

The court said it was hard to see similarities between cross-examining Camacho or the officers who interrogated her, since the officers could only speculate as to her motives and influences to testify.

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.

The couple told police they thought the children were possessed.

According to evidence during Rubio's trial, he had inhaled so much spray paint that he had damaged his brain and might have been psychotic.