NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A former prep school student charged with carrying guns for her boyfriend’s Harlem drug gang headed to jail Tuesday as she prepared to plead guilty after a congressman and a prominent church went to court to support her.
With her head high and a paperback novel in her handcuffed hands, Afrika Owes, 17, turned herself in to start serving time. Prosecutors and her lawyer said they expected her to plead guilty July 7 and be freed sometime in September to finish her senior year of high school and prepare for college.
“Everyone understands that teenagers sometimes don’t have the best judgment,” said her attorney, Elsie Chandler. “Afrika, here, is taking responsibility for her own errors of judgment.”
“It’s a very brave and very grown-up thing that she’s doing.”
Owes was arrested in February in a sweep of what Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. called a violent crack cocaine ring that controlled and terrified a Harlem block.
The onetime scholarship student at the elite Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, carried boyfriend Jaquan “Jay Cash” Layne’s gun and transmitted his instructions to gang members of “137th Street Crew” while he was jailed on other charges in 2009 and 2010, prosecutors said.
In conversations on a recorded jail phone, Layne told her to distribute guns to another associate and advised her that if things got “crazy, let it go … make sure, head shots only,” while Owes said she’d routinely carried his 9 mm semiautomatic pistol before he was locked up, according to an indictment.
Owes and Layne, 20, pleaded not guilty in February to conspiracy and weapon-possession charges. Layne’s lawyer has suggested his client wasn’t the cocaine kingpin prosecutors portray; Layne told the Daily News in a jail interview that he and Owes “didn’t do it.”
But Owes is now set to admit guilt and spend the summer at Rikers Island, where she spent about two months after her arrest before Abyssinian Baptist Church put up her $25,000 bail in April, after a member vote. Owes and her family have long been active in the 203-year-old Harlem church, where visitors have included Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and the late congressman and civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a pastor.
While leaders acknowledged it was unusual for a church to post bail in a drug case, they said they had felt it was right to help Owes.
“The church, overall, is pleased with the results we saw today,” said Gerald Barbour, chairman of the church’s Board of Deacons. “This is a great day for the church and an even better day for sister Afrika Owes.”
Barbour was one of several church leaders who came to court with Owes on Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel had gone to court to show support for her as she sought bail in March, telling reporters afterward that even “the smartest kids in the world make poor judgments.”
After her release in April, Owes went back to a Manhattan public school, took state exams and otherwise continued her education, Chandler said. The planned plea arrangement envisions that after Owes gets out of jail in the fall, if she successfully finishes high school and enrolls in college, she will be designated a youthful offender, Chandler said. The status would mean she would not officially have a criminal record.
“This is a young woman who could go on and to do whatever she wants with her life,” Chandler said.
If convicted, Owes could have faced up to 25 years in prison.
Owes is not expected to help prosecutors build their case against any of her 13 co-defendants, her lawyer said.
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