By Shayna Jacobs
MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church will be permitted to post $50,000 bail for a teen church member and former honors student accused of helping a street gang, but only if their trustees formally approve it, a judge ruled Monday.
The historic Harlem church had announced its intention at a hearing earlier this month to use its own funds to bail out 17-year-old Afrika Owes as she awaits trial on felony gun and drug charges. She's been held in Rikers since her arrest Feb. 16.
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edward McLaughlin said Monday the church could legally post bail for Owes if it is first approved by the board of directors acting on behalf of the congregation.
"They can do if they chose to in the manner set out in what the board of directors can do or not do on their behalf," the judge said at a brief court hearing in Manhattan Supreme Court, citing the Religious Corporation Law.
Church officials, including its Pastor Rev. Calvin Butts, have argued that Owes should be allowed to be free on bail so she can finish high school while she awaits trial.
The judge said at a March 4 court hearing that he needed more time to decide whether church funds could be legally used for bail.
After the judge approved the church's right to post bail, Owes' mother, Karen, burst into tears on Monday and thanked the church members for their support.
"Everything's going to be all right," she told one supporter.
A lawyer for Owes said she could not comment on how long it may take for the church to officially approve the use of funds for Owes' release.
Her next court date is April 19.
Owes was one of 14 alleged Harlem gang members arrested during a massive gang sweep in February. She was charged with helping boyfriend and alleged gang leader Jaquan Layne sell guns and drugs from Rikers where he was serving time.
Prosecutors said she was caught on recorded phone calls intercepted from the jail talking about how she carried Layne's guns.
Owes has had widespread community support, including from Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel and members of the church, dozens of whom have repeatedly turned out at court to support her. They say Owes was under the influence of her boyfriend Jaquan Layne and got caught up in the wrong crowd.