A teenager considered such an inspiring youth leader that he was invited to address MPs in parliament is one of 10 young black men jailed after being convicted of participating in a violent conspiracy.
But the convictions have sparked huge controversy, with race justice campaigners saying some teens were “guilty by association.”
The case has sparked a protest march and a campaign that has resulted in the provision of mentoring, therapy and tutoring to convicts of more than 500 people.
Ademola Adedeji, 19, and three friends from Moston in north Manchester were each sentenced Friday to eight years in prison for conspiracy to inflict grievous bodily harm. They were jailed for participating in a private group chat on Telegram’s messaging app a few days after the murder of one of their friends.
Kids of Colour, a youth justice organization that organized the march and offer of mentoring, said the case showed evidence of “thought police.”
It said innocent young people had been criminalized for sending immature messages in the throes of grief, messages misinterpreted as evidence of violent intent.
Most of the 10 young men attended the same school in Moston. They were convicted of plotting violent revenge for the murder of their friend – a 16-year-old aspiring rapper named Alexander John Soyoye, who performed drill music under the name “MD”.
None of those targeted in the Telegram chat were injured, although three of the defendants violently assaulted two other boys using machetes and a car as weapons.
The judge, Mr Justice Goose, convicted them on Friday, saying the case involved two rival gangs, the M40 from Moston and the RTD gang from Rochdale and Oldham.
“It was played on social media and through rap music, with threats of violence, display of weapons, including firearms, machetes and crossbows. Entering a gang’s territory was considered a provocation, which was met with violence or the threat of violence,” he said.
The defendants denied being in a gang, claiming that M40 was a music collective in which some of them rapped. The judges were shown YouTube videos of some covered-faced teens rapping and posing in Moston.
Four of the defendants had nothing to do with the M40 music group, other than watching one or two of their videos.
Among them was Adedeji, who was described by his youth worker as “a truly exceptional young man”. He was head boy at his school and had created a book profiling inspiring young black people in Moston.
The book, called Something to Say, prompted his invitation to parliament in 2019, when he was 16. He received an unconditional offer to study law at the University of Birmingham, which he got on bail.
Adedeji’s coach with the Salford Red Devils youth rugby team said he was “the type of star pupil we are looking for to get into the big leagues and hopefully the England squad”. During the weekends, the teenager was a social worker for people with dementia.
His best friend, Raymond Savi, also 19, came from “the most loving family you could hope for,” his lawyers said. He had honors in his studies and a place at Salford University to study accounting.
Another of their friends, Azim Okunola, 19, was about to graduate with honors in computer science and artificial intelligence when he was convicted after completing the course in two years instead of three.
Another friend, Omolade Okoya, 19, studied public services at university, hoping to one day work for the police, ambulance or fire service.
None of those four will achieve their short-term ambitions. The public gallery was packed with their friends and relatives sobbing as they were handed eight years in prison, while a boy’s father yelled, “Racists!”
Adedeji, Savi, Okunola and Okoya were all convicted based on a series of messages posted on a group chat called “MDs World [crying emoji]” in a few hours on November 8, 2020, three days after Soyoye was murdered.
None of the four had weapons, nor did they participate in violent actions or “scoping missions” to locate individuals who were the target of violence.
Still, a jury found them guilty of participating in a three-month conspiracy, which included at least two violent assaults by other defendants. The prosecution said their role in the conspiracy was to identify who should be attacked and obtain information about their whereabouts.
The incriminating Telegram chat was set up by another defendant, Jeffrey Ojo, shortly after Soyoye was fatally stabbed by members of the RTD gang. Four of the defendants – Harry Oni, Brooklyn Jitobah, Martin Junior Thomas and Simon Thorne – were there when Soyoye was murdered. Thorne and Thomas also received eight years in prison.
They took part in a street fight with 13 youths from the RTD gang involving machetes and metal pipes, but ran away, leaving Soyoye alone to bleed to death. He had been stabbed 15 times, including in the perineum.
The prosecution said it was “guilt and shame” that they knew they had run away and left Soyoye to die, prompting them to seek violent revenge.
The prosecution said the Telegram chat showed that the 10 were plotting to retaliate, pick targets.
Adedeji contributed 11 of the chat’s 345 messages. He was seen passing on the zip code of one of Soyoye’s killers. They were never attacked, but were eventually convicted of Soyoye’s murder.
Savi also wrote 11 of the 345 messages and participated in the chat for 14 minutes. In one message, he suggested that the nephew of one of Soyoye’s killers “nap” (kidnap) and take his phone so he couldn’t contact others.
Savi’s defense was that he made no serious suggestions and had no idea that actual violence could take place. In the event, no one was ever kidnapped as part of the conspiracy.
Oni, Jitobah and two others – Jeffrey Ojo and Gideon Kalumda – were found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Oni, Ojo and Kalumda were sentenced to 21 years. Jitobah was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Roxy Legane, the director of Kids of Colour, said the case was the latest in a series of lawsuits in which large groups, often black boys, were imprisoned for those they know.
“This is a case of guilty by association because, again, the harm of a small minority has provided a much larger network for prosecution,” she said.
“For these 10 guys, it’s their knowing of each other, whether through school or church, that’s been manipulated to bring them closer together and draw broader conclusions about what their knowledge of each other entails.
“Their associations become proof of guilt. Shared schools, social media friendships, music interests, messaging groups and of course black sharing has been used to brand them as criminal gangs.
She said the private messages used to amplify a gang story were in fact “thoughtless, immature, emotional messages” that “went criminal, became intent: it feels like thought police”.
The case was tried under conspiracy law, which passed into law long before the era of cell phones and social media. It has similarities to crimes prosecuted as “joint venture,” a common law doctrine where one person can be convicted jointly for the crime of another, if the court decides they foresaw that the other party was likely to commit that crime.
But the judge emphasized: “The defendants were not in a joint venture; they were each of the principal parties who played a full part in committing the crime of a criminal conspiracy, either to kill others or to intentionally inflict grievous bodily harm on them.”