Out of prison, Shirley Lacy is in charge at Fayetteville women's shelter

jshaffer@newsobserver.comApril 26, 2014 

  • You can help

    Teague’s Home for Women is a nonprofit that operates on tax-deductible donations. It is always in need of vehicles, clothing, household and hygiene items. For information on its immediate needs, call Shirley Lacy at 910-483-5044. Donations can be mailed to 333 Hawley Lane, Fayetteville, NC, 28301. See more at www.teagueshomeforwomen.org.

— Shirley Lacy runs a shelter for troubled women in a white clapboard house at the edge of downtown Fayetteville, where a portrait of Frederick Douglass hangs on the wall and a big white Bible stands in a living room corner.

She gets the homeless to Bible study. She steers the addicted into treatment. She makes sure the battered wake up in time for morning devotion at 5:30 a.m., and that the mentally ill get home by 4 p.m. curfew. Between all this, she cuts the grass and prepares tuna salad.

At age 48, Lacy persists in this orderly, godly life out of relief. She’s known darker places.

As a girl growing up in rural Martin County, Lacy was identified as trainable mentally handicapped, having scored 49 on an IQ test. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade.

All through her young life, she endured a series of abusive boyfriends. One broke her arm with a wooden post. One shot her in the stomach. The last, Steven Coffield, knocked her down, kicked her and blacked her eye. In 1998, while they were living in a 12-foot-by-16-foot barn, she stabbed and killed him when he attacked her with an ashtray.

Lacy got a life sentence after her court-appointed attorney spent 25 hours on her case, including six hours of trial time and five hours of driving. He presented no evidence about her mental limits. He brought no witnesses to talk about her history of beatings, court records show.

So she spent 14 years behind bars.

The story of how Lacy went to prison, and how she got out again, drives her work at the Fayetteville shelter. For an abused woman pushed to the steps of Teague’s Home for Women, Lacy is walking proof that a better life exists.

“I didn’t think I would ever see light again,” she said. “Everyone doesn’t get a chance. I got a chance.”

Twice a week, she attends class at Fayetteville Urban Ministries, working toward her GED. Most every night, she rounds up all seven women in the house for Bible study. Often, she attends open therapy session, where the women of the Teague Home talk about their speech impediments, bipolar disorder and other obstacles to full-time jobs.

Lacy makes it happen, allowing no nonsense. She handles it ably, growing beyond the limitations of her early life.

“She’s my buddy,” said Pat Phillips, 51, who came to Teague’s Home after being evicted in January. “She’s a sweetheart. Just don’t step on her toes, or there will be trouble.”

Life with violent men

Lacy came from Robersonville, a speck of a town off U.S. 64, 90 miles east of Raleigh. From the beginning, she lived a punishing life of poverty and neglect, detailed in court records.

Her father only finished the fourth grade. Her mother couldn’t read or write. At one point in her childhood, 10 people lived in their home on a monthly income of $96.

Both Lacy and her brother went into state custody, having been witnesses to their parents’ domestic violence. Lacy struggled with school, scoring 49 on one IQ test and less than 40 on another, court documents show. She was 19 and pregnant when she reached the eighth grade and had long been attending special education classes on a nongraded basis.

“The way Ms. Lacy presents herself is with a very childlike demeanor,” Dr. Moira Antigues, a psychiatrist, testified in a hearing to vacate her sentence in 2012. “She’s not a very expressive – emotionally expressive – kind of person.”

She got disability payments, but she says a relative kept the money. She started drinking and mixing with men who assaulted her: with a post in 1991, with a gun in 1994. Like many abused women, life with violent men became a pattern.

By 1998, she had become romantically involved with Coffield, about a year older, and they’d been living for two months in what the courts have described as both a shed and a barn. It had furniture but no plumbing.

On the night of April 25, Coffield and Lacy were out drinking beer in Robersonville, where the boyfriend hit and kicked her. That night in the shed, she later testified, he came at her with silver ashtray he had already used to blacken her eye the night before. They struggled, and she stabbed him with a knife.

“She had been drinking,” Antigues later testified, “she has this mental retardation which affects her ability to make and carry out plans anyway. But in a state of high emotional arousal, in a state of being traumatized, and, ‘Here we go again,’ which causes more emotional arousal. I don’t think she had any wherewithal to make decisions or plan.”

A weak defense

Lacy’s entire first-degree murder trial took a day and a half, including jury selection, according to the transcript of the 2012 hearing.

Her attorney, Matthew Lilly of Washington, N.C., called one witness: Lacy herself. Years later, under oath, Lilly admitted that he never instructed his client that she faced the possibility of life in prison.

Before she testified, Lacy felt nervous.

“She did not understand anything about the trial process,” Antigues testified. “She did not understand what her rights were. She told me that she was very, very scared going into trial, felt very unprepared and had no idea she was going to be put on the stand.”

Much of the story embarrassed her, she said, especially with her mother in the courtroom.

But on the stand that day, Lacy described her night of drinking beer with Coffield and told jurors that when they got home, he warned her she wouldn’t wake up if she went to sleep that night. Then he hit her in the eye, “just like he did Friday night.”

Lacy described her struggle with Coffield and the knife as taking both 10 and 20 minutes. She told jurors both that she had been living with the victim and that she had not. She described him as repeatedly violent and also that he had not previously attacked her.

“One of the thoughts I had reviewing this is that we all have trouble thinking straight when we’re stressed,” Antigues testified. “But imagine being a moderately mentally retarded person taking the stand, being publicly humiliated and having to try to think straight.”

Starting in 1998, Lacy served her time at women’s prisons in Raleigh and Troy. Soon after she entered custody, a social worker contacted Lilly to say he didn’t think she was competent to stand trial and still didn’t understand the concept of a life sentence. Lilly represented Lacy again on appeal, which was denied. Later, under oath in 2012, he said he didn’t recall either the social worker’s call or representing his client on appeal.

In 2011, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services took up Lacy’s cause, seizing upon a long list of strategies Lilly didn’t employ.

He never brought forth anyone to talk about her disability. He never spoke with Lacy’s mother or any family members who could have testified to her long-standing mental problems. He never arranged for any kind of mental health expert to test her.

“It seemed like she did understand everything that was – my impression, of what was going on and able to present herself,” Lilly testified in 2012. “And that while she may not have been the most intelligent or the best at presenting it, it did not come across ... she would then (have) had any type of mental or other issues.”

Prisoner Legal Services also criticized Lilly for not bringing out court records of prior attacks against his client. Robersonville Police Chief Darryl Knox knew about Lacy’s history as a battered woman, but Lilly did not put him on the stand.

“He would have been a very credible witness to those 12 jurors?” asked Mary Pollard, Lacy’s attorney with Prisoner Legal Services.

“Don’t know how credible,” Lilly said.

When Lilly had finished his testimony, Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr. called Lilly’s representation “egregious and appalling.”

He ordered Lilly to return in a week and demonstrate why he should remain on the list of lawyers available to represent indigent clients. Today, Lilly continues to work for the public defender’s office in Martin County. Reached last week, he said he didn’t have time to speak about the case.

But more important to Lacy, Sermons vacated her first-degree murder sentence, ordering a new trial. Rather than go through the ordeal again, Lacy entered an Alford plea to second-degree murder, not admitting guilt, and was released because of the 14 years already served.

Pollard felt she could have done much better than that at trial, but with her plea, Lacy was free.

Learning and leading

Out of prison, Lacy didn’t want to return to Martin County.

So in 2012, she arrived at Teague’s Home in Fayetteville, a two-story house on Hawley Lane with a pair of black house cats, a vegetable garden out back and a passage from Romans painted on a rock in the front yard.

The house operated under Alberta Green, the wife of an Army paratrooper born in 1922. She’d traveled to Japan and Germany with the military, seeing much of the world. She’d also been an alcoholic. But by 2000, she’d opened her second home for wayward women in Fayetteville, funded through donations.

Lacy took to the rules right away: No jeans at Bible study. No male visitors without approval from the house director. Lights out at 10 p.m.

“She was a pretty strict woman,” Lacy said. “She was nice to me.”

But less than two months after Lacy arrived, Green died at age 89. The Teague Home looked around for someone with the same kind of tough love, who could look into the eyes of a battered spouse or a homeless drinker and see a little bit of herself.

As board chairman, Roy Chason often leads the shelter’s women in prayer, and he attends Bible study with them at Southview Baptist Church in Hope Mills, reading from a Bible marked with several colors of highlighter pen. In class, he speaks of “spineless Christians” who spend their lives focused on their own entertainment rather the word of God. He backs Lacy without hesitation.

“It didn’t take us long to know she was the one to ramrod that place,” he said. “You learn more by seeing people’s demeanor than you do filling out an application. Not everyone can do what she does with women who need direction.”

She lives at Teague’s Home full-time. She doesn’t drink anymore. She isn’t interested in men who tell her she looks good. She tells women at the shelter that they can stop living a destructive life.

Just look at her.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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