SAN FRANCISCO 's The California Supreme Court on March 3 lifted the death penalty against Peeter Sakarias, who together with Tauno Waidla in 1991 murdered an Estonian-American woman who helped the two after they defected to the West in 1987.
The death penalty against the second Estonian remains in force, Reuters reported.
"We agree with Sakarias that the prosecutor violated his due process rights by intentionally and without justification arguing inconsistent theories during the two trials, attributing to each petitioner acts that could have been committed by only one person," the California Supreme Court ruled.
The court found Waidla guilty of striking the woman to death, thus relinquishing Sakarias' penalty.
The two former Soviet Army conscripts appealed, alleging the prosecutor misrepresented the facts and suggested each was individually responsible for killing the woman.
Sakarias' lawyers said the decision meant California would either seek a new hearing to re-impose the death penalty or accept a life sentence without parole.
A spokesman for the California attorney general's office said the issue was under review.
Sakarias and Waidla fled to the United States via West Berlin after defecting from a Soviet army unit in then East Germany. Once in the United States, they were offered accommodation for one year by an Estonian-American couple, Avo and Viivi Piirisild.
After leaving their hosts the duo returned to burglarize the house, stealing money to flee to Canada or Hawaii.
They hacked Viivi Piirisild to her death after the woman unexpectedly returned home from a dentist's appointment on July 12, 1988. She walked in on the thieves stuffing bags with her and her husband's personal belongings.
Sakarias and Waidla were apprehended near the Canadian border in August of the same year. The suspects were easily tracked down, as they used the victim's credit card.