By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Afrika Owes, the 17 year old accused of ferrying guns for a Harlem street gang, could be free soon now that the congregation at Abyssinian Baptist Church overwhelmingly approved providing her $50,000 bail.
But Owes' attorney, Elsie Chandler of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, wants to make it crystal clear that the bail money is the only reason the former Deerfield Academy prep school student will likely be released from the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island.
"She's not cooperating. She's not a snitch," Chandler told DNAinfo.
Chandler said she is concerned that people on the street might think Owes' freedom is related to her cooperation with the Manhattan District Attorney's office and try to do her harm.
"I don't want her killed," Chandler said. "Her release is not dependent on her going into the prosecutor and talking. Her release is the work of her defense counsel and Abyssinian Baptist Church saying they will not abandon someone who is an active church member."
Owes was one of 14 people charged as part of an investigation into the Harlem street gangs "2 Mafia Family," also known as 2MF, and "Goons on Deck." Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. called the gangs, which operated at Lenox Avenue and West 137th Street, one of the city's most violent.
At a recent town hall meeting at Harlem Hospital, two blocks from where the gang operated, Vance also said the gang was especially dangerous because they recruited underaged kids into criminal activities, including girls to carry weapons because they were less likely to be stopped by police.
But prominent community leaders such as the Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian, and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel have come out in strong support of Owes. Butts has preached about the young woman from the pulpit, saying she was "led astray," and Rangel showed up in court and tried to speak on Owes behalf.
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edward McLaughlin said he would allow Abyssinian to post Owes' bail only if it was approved by the church's board of directors.
The church, in a joint meeting last Thursday of the board and the full congregation, voted almost unanimously — there was one abstention — to provide the $50,000 bail.
Chandler said she does not know when her client will be released.
Peter Moskos, a former police officer and assistant professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he understands the concerns of Owes' lawyer.
"It's dangerous to get labeled a snitch. It doesn't matter if it's true," Moskos said.
"Normally, if she got out early but didn't have this strong base of support, there might be tensions," Williams said. "But many people think she should have been out a long time ago."
Chandler said she's not taking any chances.
"I know some people on the street think you don't get out unless you cooperate. And because of how people feel about cooperating, I want to be clear that she's out in spite of the prosecution and because the church followed all the conditions," Chandler said.
She said Owes has been informally tutoring other inmates during her time at Rikers. Upon release, she said Owes plans to return to school to continue her studies.
"The criminal accusation is one small part of people's lives. She is a brilliant student and she needs to go back to school," Chandler said.