FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Shirley Lacy arrived at Teague’s Home for Women in December.
Her life until then had been one of drugs, alcohol and abusive relationships.
She was shot and nearly died.
Then, after a struggle that ended in the death of an abuser, Lacy found herself convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole.
But with the help of N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, Lacy’s conviction and sentence were vacated, and she was released from prison.
That’s when she came to Fayetteville, just another of the many women who have passed through the door at Teague’s Home. The ministry works to help homeless women looking to start over in life. The late Alberta Green began the ministry in 1966. It has had different names through the years.
Now, Lacy, 48, is carrying on the work of Green, who died at age 89 in March 2012. Lacy was named director of the home earlier this year.
Tommy Lee, a member of the home’s board of directors, had watched as Green’s health grew more fragile through the years. He had prayed for God to send someone to take the reins of the ministry.
Lee did not have to look far.
“Little did I know she was sitting among us,” he said. “She came here and we thought we would minister to her, but she ministered to us.”
Lacy’s life got off to a rocky start. She grew up in Martin County and was only 12 when a relative took advantage of her, pocketing disability payments after having Lacy declared mentally retarded.
The relative “worked the system,” Lacy said, grinning.
She never learned, as a child, to read or write. She did not know how to tie her shoes until her brother showed her years later.
By the time Lacy was 18, she was drinking. A year later, she was pregnant. She had a daughter, who later would become estranged.
And the cycle of abuse began, Lacy said.
“I got out there in the world, in different relationships with different men,” she said. “Most of them were abusive.”
Lacy was taunted. She was beaten, her body constantly bruised and swollen.
She was shot in the stomach by one of the men after he accused her of stealing his wallet. She nearly died.
Lacy stayed on the same path, in and out of relationships, until she met Steven Ray Coffield.
“That relationship started out good, like all of them did,” Lacy said. “A couple months later, he got violent, called me names and hit me.”
The abuse continued until April 26, 1998, when Coffield came toward Lacy holding a steel ashtray in his hand. It was the same one he had used to beat her in the face the night before, giving her a black eye, Lacy said.
“He wanted to fight some more,” she said. “He wanted to black the other eye. He kept walking with the ashtray.”
Lacy had a knife she had been using to cut chicken. She held it up.
He struck a bargain, Lacy said. He would drop the ashtray if she would put down the knife.
Lacy dropped the knife, but Coffield picked the ashtray up and advanced on her.
“He came at me, and I grabbed the knife. Then we started struggling with it, and that’s how he got stabbed.”
Coffield died, and Lacy found herself charged with first-degree murder. In November 1998, she was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, all in the same day.
Lacy was sent to the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women and later was transferred to a women’s prison near Troy.
That was where her life began to turn around.
Lacy took a job in the kitchen. She went to school, four times a day, and learned to read and write.
The reading came first, she said, and then the writing.
“I would sit and write letters and see how the sentences added up and how they sounded,” Lacy said.
If she didn’t like them, she would crumple the paper and throw it on the floor. A lot of paper accumulated on the floor.
Lacy was in prison when she found God, asked for forgiveness and committed her life to the Lord.
Once in prison, Lacy said, she tried to find help in appealing her conviction and sentence. She filed appeals, but all were denied.
Then, word of her case got to N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, where a lawyer reviewed Lacy’s court file. The lawyer, not liking what was found, filed a motion contending that Lacy’s trial lawyer failed to properly represent her, said Mary Pollard, executive director of Prisoner Legal Services.
Among the allegations were that her lawyer met only twice with Lacy, for a total of about 60 minutes, before the trial, Pollard said.
Lee said the prosecutor suppressed several pieces of evidence that would have supported Lacy’s contention that the stabbing was self-defense, as well as 911 calls she made on previous occasions and hospital records from her shooting.
A judge agreed, and Lacy’s conviction and sentence were vacated, Pollard said.
Lacy agreed to enter an Alford plea to second-degree murder, Pollard said. With an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but admits there is enough evidence to result in a conviction.
Lacy was released immediately, Pollard said. She had served a longer sentence than she would have received had she been convicted of second-degree murder.
On Jan. 23, 2012, Lacy walked out of prison, looking to begin a new life.
An apartment was available to her at the time, Lacy said, but her lawyers had contacted Teague’s Home. Lacy chose to come to Fayetteville, she said, because she knew it was too soon to be on her own.
Lacy is now drawing on her experiences to help other women who may find themselves in the same or similar circumstances.
“Shirley, she’s got a lot of wisdom,” Lee said. “She’s done a marvelous job. It’s like looking at a 40-something-year-old version of Alberta Green.”
This summer, after years of estrangement, Lacy reconnected with her daughter, Danielle, now 28. She is living at Teague’s Home while looking for a job.
Lacy is working through Fayetteville Urban Ministry to get her GED.
“God is the only reason I’m here,” Lacy said. “I found my purpose. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m grateful for the road I took.”