RENTON — On Thursday and Friday, Doug Baldwin Jr. will help decide the fate of six lives.
The retired Seahawks star and four colleagues on an obscure state board will consider whether five people convicted of murder and another serving 39 years for a drive-by shooting and armed robbery should be freed from prison.
Without the help of Baldwin and the rest of the state Clemency and Pardons Board most will die in prison. The board will hear their cases, their pleas.
They will hear from those seeking mercy. They’ll hear from friends and families, from personal references. They’ll hear from those opposed to any change in sentence. From victims, victims’ families, prosecutors.
They will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee on who should go free and who should remain in prison.
The recommendations carry great weight. Over hundreds of cases since 2012, Inslee has followed the board’s advice more than 95% of the time.
“I want to get it right. I want to do right by not only the folks who are petitioning but also by the families and the community that’s been impacted by whatever cases we’re seeing,” Baldwin said. “It’s a great responsibility, in some cases a great burden, to make the right decision.”
The board includes a civil rights attorney, the former director of the state Department of Licensing, a former court reporter and bailiff and the dean of students at Whitman College.
And it includes Baldwin, 34, a Super Bowl winner and two-time Pro Bowler who in an eight-year career became one of the greatest wide receivers in Seahawks history.
He was appointed by Inslee in October. He is the youngest member by more than two decades.
Inslee’s office contacted Baldwin, who’s long been active in police and criminal legal reform efforts, last summer to see if he or anyone he knew was interested in serving on the volunteer board, one of more than 230 boards and commissions appointed by the governor.
Baldwin filled out an application himself.
“I’ve been in these spaces for a while now and like,” he pauses. “Frustrated with the systems that I just feel like need some shaking up.”
Injuries ended Baldwin’s pro football career in 2019.
He says he hasn’t watched a full NFL game since and likely never will. When he turns on a game or is at a stadium, his body reacts. The roar of the crowd, the smell of the grass, they’re triggers. They cause aggression, fight or flight.
“I’m sweating and my heart’s palpitating and all those things because I’m conditioned to be in that environment and go perform,” Baldwin said. “And things that come with that don’t necessarily bode well for me and my mental health once I go home.”
He’ll read the box scores, he talks to Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf; he won’t watch the games.
He grappled with depression for months after retiring. He says he’s doing much better now and sees several therapists regularly.
“I was really struggling with leaving the sport, I mean obviously, I had been playing football since I was 6 years old, so that’s all I had known,” Baldwin said. “And if you look at the grand scheme of things, typically people don’t retire at 30 years old, right? So now I had to go and figure out what am I going to do with the rest of my life.”
Baldwin and his wife Tara have three daughters, all under age 4.
And from a spacious, unmarked office suite above a Renton coffee shop (that he’s an investor in), Baldwin has launched a little business and charitable empire.
He runs an impact investment fund, with stakes in about a dozen organizations aiming to disrupt “historically exclusive systems.” He’s also the CEO of one of those businesses, Ventrk, a health and wellness software company.
His Family First Community Center, a $15 million project with the city of Renton, years in the making, is under construction and scheduled to open next to Cascade Elementary School next year.
Former Renton Mayor Denis Law, who partnered with Baldwin in spearheading the community center, calls the project one of the highlights of his career and says Baldwin is “one of the greatest guys I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.”
“He is very compassionate and he knows that people can go sideways and make the wrong moves and end up where maybe they should not be,” Law said. “And I think he would be very methodical in the process, in thinking through who deserves another chance.”
Baldwin’s police reform efforts far pre-date his retirement.
He helped lead the Seahawks in linking arms during the national anthem, shortly after Colin Kaepernick first knelt to protest racial injustice and police brutality. After police shootings of Black men and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, he demanded that attorneys general in all 50 states review police training policies. That led to death threats, and to a meeting with the Seattle Police Department.
He wrote to then-President Donald Trump, calling for him to pardon elderly, nonviolent drug offenders who have already served long sentences.
He was a prominent public supporter, testifying before the Washington Legislature, of Initiative 940, which voters approved in 2018, requiring de-escalation training for police officers and making it easier to prosecute officers who use deadly force.
But he’s frequently sought to find middle ground. His father was a police officer for more than 35 years.
Baldwin led the Seahawks in linking arms, not in kneeling, just a week after a teammate had sat during the anthem. When he made his demand of attorneys general, he talked about how the killing of Tamir was “not an isolated incident,” while also saying only “a very minute” number of officers were violating policies. He does not believe in defunding the police.
“He’s big on finding solutions that aren’t just all one track,” said Anthony Powers, the reentry program director for the Seattle Clemency Project, which Baldwin has worked with in recent years. “People want police reform, but then it’s like ‘they’re going against police.’ He’s more like, let’s work with police and the community to find something that works.”
If he sounds at times like a politician, well…
He’s thought about it, but worries he would be frustrated with the slow pace of change in politics.
“I genuinely think I’m too young,” he said of public office. “If that opportunity was to come and I was to pursue it, it wouldn’t be for many years.”
“Third, fourth, fifth chances”
Baldwin doesn’t necessarily view his four-year term on the Clemency and Pardons Board as a continuation of his criminal legal reform work.
“This is also an opportunity for me to learn more and get really into the weeds of how these systems actually operate,” he said.
His path to the board began with a 2021 letter he wrote to the governor’s office on behalf of a Seattle Clemency Project client who’d long since completed his sentence, but was seeking a pardon because his manslaughter conviction put him at risk for deportation.
“It wasn’t something I was too involved in, just supporting someone who had rehabilitated and made great strides to being a better person,” Baldwin said. “It honestly was as simple as that.”
A year or so later, with openings on the board, Inslee’s office reached out to Baldwin to see if he or anyone he knew was interested in serving. Baldwin was interviewed by the governor’s staff and legal counsel, as were several other candidates.
He is replacing a former police chief.
He is well aware of the weight of the board’s decisions, something he called “a heavy burden.”
“You’re making a decision based on, is this person willing to acclimate back into society and be a productive member of society,” he said. “I firmly believe in second chances. I firmly believe in third, fourth, fifth chances. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, we all do things we’re not proud of, but it’s how do you recover from those situations.”
“The human part of it”
The board is generally the last chance for redemption. It ordinarily only hears cases in which all appeals have been exhausted, and only cases in which at least 10 years have passed since conviction.
There is no set definition of what they’re looking for. State law says only that pardons and commutations can be given in “extraordinary cases.”
“Each individual board member determines what they think is extraordinary since it is not defined in the statute,” said Cheryl Angeletti-Harris, an attorney adviser with the U.S. Department of Justice and the chair of the board.
She’s looking at the seriousness of the crime. She’s looking at remorse.
At informal introductory board meetings this fall, Angeletti-Harris remembers telling Baldwin and the other newest member about what awaits them.
“They are going to be mentally and emotionally drained by the end of the two days of hearings,” she said. “You have someone’s life in your hands, you’re either going to say no and someone has to stay in prison or you say yes.”
Saying yes, even rehearing the cases, has its own repercussions for victims and their families.
“It’s like they have this scab,” she said, “and you’re ripping it off every time they have to go through something like this.”
This week, they’ll hear the petition of Henry Grisby, 82, who has spent more than half his life in prison. He was sentenced to life without parole in 1978 after he accompanied another man to an apartment and that man shot and killed five people inside. His application for a commutation features dozens of references and runs more than 300 pages.
He and his wife of more than four decades, Juanita, have nine children, 24 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
“I need and want my husband home with me and my family,” Juanita Grisby wrote to the board.
They’ll hear the case of Anthony Godfrey, 55, convicted of first-degree murder 23 years ago after he shot Carlos Villamor in a fight and was sentenced to 39 years. His application for commutation includes 28 letters of support and runs more than 140 pages.
“I have searched in every part of my being on how to show my deepest regrets and apology for what I have done to you, your family, and humanity,” Godfrey wrote to Villamor’s family, a letter included in his petition. “I just hope that you find me worth an atom of mercy; and allow me to be in your debt forever. Please.”
They’ll hear the case of Minviluz Macas, 77, convicted in 1989 of setting a fire that killed her husband and two sons. She was sentenced to life without parole. She has always maintained her innocence. Her application for commutation is more than 180 pages.
Her granddaughter, among many others, wrote to the board. She described how Macas sends Christmas and birthday presents every year, from prison.
“Each package is filled with handmade stockings and treats, and for each time I was pregnant with my children, she would send her handmade blankets,” Macas’ granddaughter wrote. “She is a positive influence, not only to us, but to her fellow inmates. I am very proud of my grandma.”
Baldwin says he’s been reading case files. There is so much to take in. There are statements from supporters, from victims’ families, from defense attorneys, from prosecutors. There are infraction and behavioral reports from prison, performance reviews, health records.
There are the details of the original crime and there is all that’s happened since — the path traveled toward redemption.
“I’m trying to get as close as I can to who this human being is,” he said. “How do you get to the human part of it, to then determine is this human being on a path to reclamation?”