A teenager considered such an inspirational youth leader that he was invited to address MPs in parliament is among 10 young black men to have been jailed after being found guilty of taking part in a violent conspiracy.
But the convictions have sparked huge controversy, with racial justice campaigners saying some of the teenagers have been found “guilty by association”.
The case sparked a protest march and campaign that led to more than 500 people offering mentorship, therapy and tutoring to those convicted.
Ademola Adedeji, 19, and three friends from Moston, north Manchester, were each sentenced to eight years in prison on Friday for conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm. They were jailed for participating in a private group chat on the Telegram messaging app days after a friend of theirs was murdered.
Kids of Colour, a youth justice organization that organized the march and the mentoring offer, said the case showed evidence of “thought policing”.
He said innocent young people have been criminalized for sending immature messages in the throes of grief, messages that have been misinterpreted as evidence of violent intent.
Most of the 10 young men attended the same school in Moston. They were found guilty of plotting violent revenge for the murder of their friend – a 16-year-old aspiring rapper called Alexander John Soyoye, who played boring music under the name ‘MD’.
None of those named as targets in the Telegram chat were injured, although three of the defendants violently attacked two other boys using machetes and a car as weapons.
Sentencing them on Friday, the judge, Mr Justice Goose, said the case involved two rival gangs, the M40 of Moston and the RTD gang of Rochdale and Oldham.
“It played out on social media and through rap music, with threats of violence, the display of weapons, including firearms, machetes and crossbows. Entering the territory of a gang was treated as a provocation, which had to be answered with violence or the threat of violence,” he said.
The defendants denied being part of a gang, insisting that M40 was a drill music collective in which some of them rapped. The jury viewed YouTube videos featuring some of the teenagers rapping and posing in Moston with their faces covered.
Four of the defendants had nothing to do with the music group M40, other than watching one or two of their videos.
Among them was Adedeji, described by his youth worker as “a truly exceptional young man”. He was principal of his school and had produced a book about the inspiring young black people of Moston.
The book, titled Something to Say, prompted his invitation to Parliament in 2019, when he was 16. He had an unconditional offer to study law at the University of Birmingham, received while out on bail.
Adedeji’s manager at youth rugby league team Salford Red Devils said he was “the type of star pupil we are looking for to get into the big leagues and hopefully into the big leagues. ‘England team’. On weekends, the teenager was caring for people with dementia.
His best friend, Raymond Savi, also 19, is from “the most loving family you could hope for”, his lawyers said. He had honors in his studies and a place at the University of Salford to study accountancy.
Another friend of theirs, 19-year-old Azim Okunola, was about to complete his computer science and artificial intelligence degree with first class honors when he was sentenced, having completed the course in two years instead of three.
Another friend, Omolade Okoya, 19, was studying public services at university, hoping to one day work for the police, ambulance or fire department.
None of these four will realize their ambitions anytime soon. The public gallery was packed with sobbing friends and family as eight-year sentences were handed down, with one boy’s father shouting: “Racists!
Adedeji, Savi, Okunola and Okoya were all sentenced based on a series of messages posted on a group chat called “MDs World [crying emoji]within hours on November 8, 2020, three days after Soyoye’s assassination.
None of the four had weapons, nor participated in acts of violence or “scouting missions” to locate individuals to target for violence.
Yet a jury found them guilty of participating in a conspiracy spanning three months that included at least two violent attacks by other defendants. The prosecution said their role in the plot was to identify who was to be attacked and to obtain information on their fate.
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 were also imprisoned for eight years.
They got into a street fight with 13 RTD gang youths involving machetes and metal pipes but got away leaving Soyoye to bleed to death alone. He had been stabbed 15 times, including in the perineum.
The prosecution said it was the “guilt and shame” of knowing they had gotten away and left Soyoye to die that drove them to seek violent revenge.
The prosecution said the Telegram chat showed the 10 plotting revenge, choosing targets.
Adedeji contributed 11 of the 345 chat messages. We saw him pass the postal code of one of Soyoye’s killers. They were never attacked but were eventually found guilty of Soyoye’s murder.
Savi also wrote 11 of the 345 posts, participating in the chat for 14 minutes. In one message, he suggested “napping” (kidnapping) the cousin of one of Soyoye’s killers and taking his phone away from him so he couldn’t contact other people.
Savi’s defense was that he made no serious suggestions and had no idea that actual violence might result. As it happens, no one was ever kidnapped as part of the plot.
Oni, Jitobah and two others – Jeffrey Ojo and Gideon Kalumda – were convicted of conspiracy to kill. 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 trials that had seen large groups of often black boys jailed for whom they knew.
“This is a case of guilt by association because once again the wrongs of a small minority have drawn a much wider net for prosecution,” she said.
“For these 10 boys, it is their knowledge, whether in school or church, that has been manipulated to bring them closer together and draw broader conclusions about what their knowledge is.
“Their associations become evidence of guilt. Shared schools, social media friendships, musical interests, messaging groups, and of course, sharing being black have been used to portray them as a criminal gang.
She said the private messages used to bolster a gang narrative were actually “thoughtless, immature, emotional messages” that “turned criminal, turned intentional: it feels like thought policing.”
The case was tried under conspiracy legislation, which came into force long before the age of cellphones and social media. It bears similarities to crimes prosecuted as “joint venture”, a common law doctrine that one individual may be jointly convicted of the crime of another, if the court decides that it intended the other party was likely to commit this crime.
But the judge stressed: “The defendants were not in a joint enterprise; they were each principal parties playing an integral role in the commission of the offense of criminal association either to kill another or to intentionally inflict grievous bodily harm.