A judge lifted the death sentence yesterday from a man convicted in the 1978 murder-for-hire of a Fairfax County service station operator.

The action by Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Jamborsky was believed to be the only commutation of a death sentence by a local Virginia judge since the state reenacted capital punishment in 1977.

Jamborsky said he commuted the death sentence given James T. Clark Jr. to life imprisonment because he agreed with Clark's contention that he had not been adequately represented during the sentencing phase of his trial.

The judge added that he "strongly and fervently recommends and prays that Clark not be paroled and that his sentence truly be imprisonment for the rest of his life." Clark, 26, could be eligible for parole after serving 15 years in prison.

The state attorney general's office could decide to appeal the commutation, but has not decided whether to do so.

Clark, who until Jamborsky's ruling had been one of 17 men awaiting death in Virginia's electric chair, was one of three people convicted in the fatal shooting of George Harold Scarborough, operator of a Texaco station, at Scarborough's home in Springfield.

Clark and a cousin, Daniel Stewart, testified in court that they were hired by Betty Holler, a friend of Scarborough's estranged wife, Jamie, to murder Scarborough. There was other testimony that Jamie Scarborough set up the slaying.

Clark and Stewart went to Scarborough's house, where Stewart tried to smother him with a chloroform-soaked pillow and Clark shot him several times, according to court testimony.

Afterward, Clark and Stewart returned to their home in Clinton and, after they ate some steaks they had taken from Scarborough's house, Stewart called Holler to report,"The beast is deceased," according to testimony.

The pair later picked up the final installment of a $7,000 payoff for the murder.

Clark was the only defendant to be sentenced to death in the case.

Holler was sentenced to life imprisonment.

A jury recommended death for Stewart for his role in the slaying, but a prosecutor persuaded a judge to impose life imprisonment instead because Stewart had promised to testify against Scarborough's wife.

A jury then acquitted Jamie Scarborough, who testified for more than three hours at her own trial that she and her husband were close and denied having anything to do with his death.

In his written opinion, which came in response to a writ of habeas corpus filed by Clark, Judge Jamborsky said yesterday that Clark's court-appointed attorneys "failed to adequately and properly investigate, develop, consider and present lay and psychiatric evidence in mitigation of the death penalty" that Clark was given.

Delivering what legal experts described as unusually harsh criticism, the judge added: "Counsel's performance in this regard was not within the range of competence demanded of lawyers in criminal cases."

The attorneys who represented Clark at his trial, Gary V. Davis and Ian Rodway, are former county prosecutors who now have private criminal law practices.

Each declined to comment on Jamborsky's ruling.

Charlottesville attorney Lloyd Snook, who is representing five inmates on death row, said perhaps 14 of the 16 men awaiting electrocution in Virginia have filed writs of habeas corpus--requests asserting they are imprisoned unfairly--similar to Clark's.

"He is the first one to have gotten any relief at all," said Snook. "It's nice to see the courts willing to consider a claim of ineffective counsel."