HARLEM — Afrika Owes, the former prep student charged two years ago with carrying guns for a Harlem street gang, will not have a criminal record if she stays out of trouble for the next four years, a Supreme Court Justice ruled Monday.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Edward McLaughlin, who has been outspoken about the need for residents of Harlem and other communities plagued by gun violence to step up and take back their neighborhoods, issued Owes a conditional discharge of her case and youthful offender status, according to Owes' lawyer Elsie Chandler.
"I don't expect, nor does the judge or the prosecutor, that she will commit another crime," said Chandler, who said the young college student shed tears of joy in the courtroom upon hearing the decision. "No one thought that she was a gang leader."
Owes, who was once a student at the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, was arrested in 2011 along with 13 other people on charges she was a gun runner for the Harlem street gangs "2 Mafia Family," also known as 2MF, and "Goons on Deck."
Prosecutors said Owes carried guns for her then boyfriend Jaquan Layne, 21, whom authorities said was one of the gang's leaders.
Layne and 13 other alleged members of the gang have since been convicted on gun and drug charges. Prosecutors say the group sold drugs and used the guns to maintain their territory through violence.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. called the gangs, which operated at Lenox Avenue and West 137th Street, among the city's most violent. He has prosecuted several of the gangs during his tenure, saying they disrupt the fabric of the city's neighborhoods, making them unsafe for the most vulnerable residents.
Owes faced 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison if convicted of the top charge. Instead, she spent approximately six months in prison. She is now entering her sophomore year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate Geneva, New York where she has made the Dean's List for two semesters in a row, said her attorney.
"The legislature put this statute in the books because everyone understands you don't get through your teenage years without trouble of some sort," said Chandler.
Owes benefited from the support of the powerful congregation at Abyssinian Baptist Church whom McLaughlin allowed, in an unusual maneuver, to post $25,000 bail on her behalf.
The congregation's leader the Rev. Calvin Butts, along with Rep. Charlie Rangel, also spoke out on Owes' behalf.
Chandler said it was the work of Abyssinian, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and the KIPP Network that helped Owes get her life back on track.
"Everyone understands that someone's state of mind when they are kid can be different and that the law ought to treat young adults differently," said Chandler.