On Tuesday evening, George Trudel Jr. — heretofore known as inmate AS2262 at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix — got the news he’d been awaiting for 30 years. Gov. Tom Wolf had granted him clemency, bringing to a close what had been a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
“He’s a little overwhelmed and just can’t believe it’s real,” said Liz Geyer, Trudel’s girlfriend of two years. “He spends a lot of time thinking what it’s gonna be like, because he just can’t believe he’s actually going to walk out of there.”
Geyer always believed it, though, because Trudel, now 52, is one of more than a thousand lifers convicted for a role in a killing that they did not personally commit or necessarily even anticipate — lookouts for botched robberies and burglars who caused elderly victims to have heart attacks. “I never thought he would die in prison," she said.
The reduction of Trudel’s life sentence, and those of two other men, bring to eight the number of commutations granted by Wolf. That’s more than any other governor in the last 25 years.
The politically precarious practice of commuting life sentences began to fall out of favor not long before Trudel was convicted, when Gov. Richard Thornburgh took office in 1979. It all but ceased in 1994 — the year a lifer named Reginald McFadden was released and went on a killing spree, flipping the governor’s race away from Mark Singel, who had approved the commutation, and shifting the odds of clemency from Harvard-acceptance rare to lottery-win rare for the next 2½ decades.
As a result, Pennsylvania is now home to more than 5,000 people serving live without parole.
Today, commutations must be unanimously recommended by the state Board of Pardons before the governor can even consider them. Many applicants are senior citizens who have spent decades in prison.
The two other men who received clemency were Adolfo Carrillo, 79, from Philadelphia, and Samuel Barlow, 68, of Pittsburgh. Carrillo shot and killed a neighbor, Santiago Garcia, during an argument in 1976; he told police that Garcia had disrespected his wife, according to news reports. Barlow was initially sentenced to death for serving as the lookout in a 1968 bank robbery in which his co-defendants shot and killed a customer, George Morelock.
Pennsylvania’s victim advocate did not respond to a phone call Friday, and any surviving family members of the victims in the three cases could not be located.
Barlow’s partner of three years, Karen Lee, said this was his 14th application for clemency. “He didn’t know if he was ever gonna get out, but he never stopped trying,” she said.
Lee, 65, of South Philadelphia, an activist who has been pushing for the release of elderly prisoners, said her excitement has been tempered by uncertainty about what the future will look like. She said Barlow wants to work — but physical labor is out. Housing is also a problem. After he spent a year in a halfway house, as mandated by state law, she’s not sure where he’ll go.
“I wanted him to stay here. Unfortunately, I live in senior housing and they have mandates in terms of returning citizens,” she said. “Even though he’s elderly like myself, we would probably have to challenge the policies.”
Trudel’s life sentence stemmed from a fight between his friend Robert Barrett and a neighborhood man they knew, Casimir “Kaz” Barowiec. Trudel stood by as Barrett stabbed the man, and later agreed to hide the knife.
Though Trudel does not believe what he did makes him a murderer, he expressed remorse in an interview last year: “I think about my actions that night and what it’s done to my family and Kaz’s family. … I never thought that I would be hurting people that weren’t even born yet: my daughter, my grandkids, my nieces and nephews.”
He’s been focused on redemption and self-transformation, earning a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University over 17 years in state prison.
He’ll join a close friend, Danny Peters, whose life sentence Wolf also commuted. Peters said readjusting was difficult at first.
“I liken it to dropping me off in a foreign land,” he said. “Out here, it’s like I had to learn everything. Cell phones I struggled with. Being able to go into a Wawa and order a sandwich from the machine.”
Although Trudel’s plans aren’t set, Peters hopes he will join him working a construction job that, for Peters, has become a source of intense pride.