By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The attorney for Afrika Owes, the now 17-year-old teen accused of ferrying guns for a Harlem street gang, said she should not be prosecuted as an adult.
Owes' lawyer, Elsie Chandler of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, said her client has "struggled" to survive amid hardened adult inmates at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island, where she has been held since her Feb. 15 arrest.
"We are at the beginning of a long, complicated case that's about the life of a 17-year-old and whether she will be able to regain her freedom and live a positive life," Chandler said.
Unlike most other states, New York prosecutes 16 and 17 year olds as adults. The few states that also still do so are reportedly moving to end the practice, and a recent New York Times story predicted that by the end of 2011, New York could be the only state that still prosecutes 16 year olds as adults.
Owes was 16 when she was arrested and charged with carrying guns for Harlem youth gangs "2 Mafia Family" and "Goons on Deck." She had been a student at the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts before moving home to Harlem.
A group of local leaders have spoken out in support of her case, including the Rev. Calvin Butts of the powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Owes and her mother are members. Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel has also lent his support, arguing that Owes should not be treated like a "hardened criminal."
Owes supporters have pressed the courts to release her, appearing before Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edward McLaughlin to ask him to let Abyssinian Baptist Church to put up the money for her $50,000 bail.
But McLauglin expressed serious concerns about doing so, citing taped conversations between Owes and her incarcerated boyfriend in which he allegedly instructs her to aim for "head shots" if things get "crazy."
Owes allegedly can be heard on tape complaining about how heavy the 9mm semiautomatic pistol is that she regularly carries for him, according to the transcript included in her indictment.
The judge chastised Rangel for rising three times to speak without permission during Owes' most recent court appearance, telling the politician, "Somebody's standing who probably shouldn't be standing unless he's got a back problem like I do."
Chandler said, "It's extraordinary for the community to see how the judge treated Congressman Rangel. To treat an elected official — someone who has served the community for so many years — with such scorn, I was taken aback."
She added that she thought the judge should take into account the overwhelming support for Owes among the community when he makes his bail decisions, and said last week's court appearance was an eye-opener for many in the community.
"It was important for the community to see what happens in court," she said.
McLaughlin said he would make a decision on Owes' bail in the next several weeks.