By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Now that Abyssinian Baptist Church has voted to use money from its general fund to bail out Afrika Owes, the former prep student accused of transporting guns for a Harlem street gang, the church's work has only just begun, according to the church's lawyer.
Theodore Shaw, a professor at Columbia Law School and former director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the 17-year-old Owes will need the backing of the entire congregation and strong guidance from the church in order to get back on the right path.
"We want to make sure she has as much support as we can provide," Shaw said.
He added that while there's "some risk" in providing Owes' bail, the church feels comfortable that she's heading back in the right direction.
"This was someone who's been in the church since nursery school," he said. "She is known by the members."
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edward McLaughlin initially hesitated to approve the church's request over concerns the church would use "money off a collection plate." But McLaughlin has since approved the move, as long as it approved by the church's board of directors.
The congregation voted overwhelmingly last week, with only one abstention, to approve the move. The vote by the congregation gave Rev. Calvin Butts the leeway he was seeking to continue to advocate on Owes' behalf. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Shaw said he wasn't fully informed about how the bail would be processed, but expects to be present at the April 19 court hearing.
He also said the church "respected" the rights of the one abstainer to put up church funds for bail, adding that the vote showed the congregation's overwhelming support for the troubled teen regardless of her guilt or innocence.
"The church believes you don't throw young people overboard," Shaw said. "Young people make mistakes."
Owes, who is a member of Abyssinian along with her mother, 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." The gangs operated in the area of Lenox Avenue and 137th Street.
Owes was a former student at the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has called the gang one of the city's most violent, also citing its practice of recruiting girls and under-aged children.
However, prominent leaders such as The Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel have spoken on Owes' behalf, saying she was "led astray" and should not be treated as a "hardened criminal."
Owes' attorney, Elsie Chandler, said she is concerned for her client's safety upon release and made it clear that Owes was not cooperating with prosecutors. "I don't want her killed," Chandler said.
"She's not cooperating. She's not a snitch," Chandler added.