The Supreme Court yesterday heard the appeal of a Virginia man who claims he was improperly sentenced to die by a jury that was confused about whether it could have given him life in prison instead.

Lonnie Weeks was convicted in the shooting death of Jose M. Cavazos, the state trooper who stopped Weeks and his uncle for speeding on Interstate 95 outside Dale City in 1993. Weeks had exhausted all of his appeals and was within two hours of being put to death on Sept. 1 when the Supreme Court said it would grant him a hearing and postponed his execution.

The question centers on how much guidance a judge must give jurors in a death penalty case when they say they do not understand the sentencing instructions. Weeks maintains that when the jurors at his trial repeatedly asked about the instructions, the judge had a constitutional obligation to clarify that they could consider mitigating evidence that could serve as a basis for a lesser sentence.

The instruction was upheld in a separate case last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that a jury need not be specifically instructed to consider mitigating factors in a capital case. The new question involves the judge's responsibility when jurors say they are perplexed by the instructions. Weeks's lawyers had previously maintained that at least two jurors wanted to sentence him to life in prison but didn't think they could.

Many of the justices appeared to believe that as long as the instructions were proper, judges could not be mandated to provide additional clarification. A ruling in the case of Weeks v. Angelone is expected by next summer.