On June 2, Gov. Rendell performed what has become one of the rarest acts for a Pennsylvania governor.

He commuted the life sentence of a convicted murderer, paving the way for a 54-year-old Bucks County man to spend the rest of his life on parole.

Such acts of mercy, once granted by the dozens, have all but ended for Pennsylvania's more than 4,600 lifers, the result of a 1994 commutation gone lethally bad.

The springing of George Gregory Orlowski, sentenced for his part in a 1980 murder, is only the second life term commuted since Rendell took office - and only the third in Pennsylvania since 1994.

In contrast, 12 life sentences per year, on average, were commuted from 1971 through 1994.

The Orlowski decision could well be the last for a while. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which must recommend clemency cases to the governor, has forwarded no other life sentences for Rendell to consider.

"Unfortunately, I think it is kind of an anomaly," said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which is suing the state over its tightened commutation standards. "We were all stunned by it."

For lifers, the clemency spigot all but closed in 1994, thanks to a pardoned killer named Reginald McFadden.

In 1994, Gov. Robert P. Casey paroled McFadden, who had served 24 years of a life sentence for murdering a 60-year-old Philadelphia woman. The state pardons board had recommended the action by a 4-1 vote.

Soon afterward, McFadden murdered two more people in New York and kidnapped and raped a third. The news broke a month before the 1994 gubernatorial election, and was credited in part for Tom Ridge's victory over then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who had been among the pardons board members approving McFadden's release.

Ridge commuted no life sentences as governor. He instead backed a 1997 constitutional amendment that now requires a unanimous vote of the five-member pardons board to recommend clemency for anyone serving a life sentence. Before, a simple majority vote had sufficed.

The amendment also required a majority vote of the board to even hear an inmate's case. That change dramatically cut the number of pardons board hearings.

Since 2001, only 10 board hearings on inmates with life sentences have been held, resulting in three commutation recommendations for convicted murderers.

In January 2003, Gov. Mark Schweiker commuted the sentence of Ricki Pinkins. At 21, Pinkins had lent a handgun to a friend who used it in a fatal 1982 bar robbery in Mercer County.

In 2007, Rendell commuted the sentence of Michael H. Anderson. He was imprisoned in 1971, at 18, after a friend fatally stabbed a bus rider they were robbing in Philadelphia. The killer spent just seven years in prison.

Orlowski was one of three men convicted in a Bucks County contract-murder scheme that went awry. All received life sentences.

"He was ecstatic" when told last week of Rendell's action, said his attorney, John Kerrigan. "He never gave up hope, and said he was eager to get out and resume what is left of his life."

Orlowski was still in prison as of late last week and could not be reached for comment.

Orlowski's wife divorced him after his arrest, but Kerrigan said Orlowski had a daughter with whom he had stayed in touch.

The judge and prosecutor in the case did not object to Orlowski's parole, Kerrigan said, nor did the victim's family. Once released from prison, Orlowski will spend a year in a state-approved halfway house, then live with his sister in Bucks County, state records show.

His crime occurred on Aug. 22, 1980, when William Decker entered a Fallsington apartment where four people were watching TV. Decker fatally shot James Puerale, 27, and wounded two others.

The gunman had been paid $250 by Victor Hassine, Orlowski's business partner at a butcher shop the two owned in Fallsington. Hassine and Orlowski sold drugs on the side to support their flagging venture.

The intended target had been a man who had threatened Orlowski over a substandard batch of methamphetamine he was sold. After Orlowski and Hassine had conspired to have Decker hurt or kill the man, the hired gunman fatally shot the wrong person.

Orlowski was not present at the murder and said in court he had wanted no one killed. The trial judge placed most of the blame on Hassine.

Hassine went on to become a well-known prison activist and author. A book he wrote about prison life became a textbook used in college classes. He hanged himself in his cell last year, shortly after the pardons board refused to grant him a hearing.

Decker remains in prison.

"In my greed, immaturity, and in my ability to be intimidated by Victor Hassine, I became caught in the middle of this situation," Orlowski wrote in his application to the pardons board. "I feel so badly about the people who were killed and hurt."

"If granted," he wrote, "I will not let this board down."

Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.