Ademola Adedeji tried to picture what the jury saw when they looked at him.
Could they tell that he was the school president? The captain of the rugby team?
Or did they see only Defendant No. 7 in a trial of 10 Black teenagers charged with conspiracy to murder? A gangster, the prosecutors claimed, who waged war on his rivals?
Adedeji, a very dark, very tall 18-year-old, had a lot riding on his testimony that morning in April this year. It was the sixth week of his trial, and this was his only chance to tell his side of the story.
If the jury believed him, he could graduate from high school and attend one of the universities that had offered him admission. If they didn’t, he could spend the next two decades in prison.
For weeks, Adedeji tried to follow the prosecutors’ arguments. They accused him of conspiring with the nine other defendants to murder and maim others.
But here is what baffled Adedeji: The prosecutors knew that he had not attacked anyone. He had never owned a gun, a knife or any other weapon. He had never thrown gang signs or dealt drugs. He had helped with the investigation, told detectives what he knew and volunteered his phone. He certainly had not killed anyone.
In fact, there was no murder victim.
What connected him to the case, and a major reason he was labeled a gang member, prosecutors said, were six text messages that he had sent when he was 17. Six texts sent within 20 minutes.
With that, he fell into the depths of a criminal justice system in Britain that, by several measures, disproportionately prosecutes and jails Black people. Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people and three times more likely to be arrested.
Prosecutors have broad latitude when it comes to calling someone a gang member, a designation that legal experts say helps persuade jurors of guilt and can be used to seek longer sentences. With no clear, legal definition for a gang, the label tends to be applied disproportionately to groups of young Black men. In London, for example, nearly 80% of people in a police gang database are Black.
To dismantle gangs, the Crown Prosecution Service, the public body in charge of prosecutions in England and Wales, tells prosecutors that “consideration should be given to conspiracy charges in order to demonstrate the overall criminality.”
Doing so gives prosecutors key advantages. They can charge people who have done little or nothing to carry out a crime, and they can introduce evidence that might otherwise be excluded. In Adedeji’s conspiracy trial, that meant his posts on Instagram, his Snapchat texts, even the drill rap videos he watched on YouTube could be used to paint him as a hoodlum.
Adedeji’s life changed Nov. 5, 2020, on Bonfire Night, an annual celebration commemorating a failed attempt to blow up Parliament in the 17th century. He was hanging out with friends in a supermarket parking lot when he got word that his childhood friend John Soyoye had been stabbed.
Adedeji and Soyoye grew up together in Moston, a North Manchester neighborhood. The two were close friends and attended the same elementary school, where Adedeji at times felt a step behind. Only years later did he learn he had dyslexia.
Adedeji got into fights until he broke a boy’s arm in a schoolyard brawl and police officers came to his house with a warning: Another violent outburst, and he would go to jail.
“I thought to myself: I’m not going to get into trouble no more,” Adedeji said.
He worked with a tutor to catch up in his studies and was elected as head boy, the equivalent of school president. He volunteered at local charities. He grew to 6-foot-2, and his friends called him Stormzy because of his vague likeness to the British rapper.
Soyoye, whom Adedeji described as “bubbly and joyful,” was an up-and-coming performer of drill music, a subgenre of rap that is popular among young Britons. His rap group, M40, took its name from the first three letters of his neighborhood’s postcode, the equivalent of a ZIP code.
Then came Bonfire Night. Thirteen young men from the nearby suburb of Rochdale arrived in Moston, armed with machetes, knives, a bat and a pipe, escalating a fight that had begun that afternoon over a stolen jacket. Soyoye rallied some friends for a standoff and brought a machete.
The two groups had no history of conflict, but that day, they clashed outside a funeral parlor. Security camera footage shows Soyoye swinging his machete before fleeing with his friends. But stab wounds slowed Soyoye down, and nine young men cornered him and fatally “struck, stabbed, slashed and kicked him,” according to a police report.
News of his friend’s death rattled Adedeji. He barely ate for weeks, and a psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants. “I was going through a stage where I was upset. I was angry,” Adedeji said.
Six text messages
Three days after Soyoye’s death, Adedeji received a link inviting him to join a chat group on the Telegram app. He was the seventh and last person to join.
The first message he saw came from an acquaintance, Harry Oni, then 17, a lead rapper in M40 who, by his own admission, had taken part in the Bonfire Night fight.
The conversation quickly turned to retribution. Oni instructed everyone to stay away from a memorial for their fallen friend until “we touch something.” That word — touch — would later prove contentious, but nobody disputes that it was a reference to some kind of violence.
Two seconds later, Adedeji sent the first of six texts that would ultimately be read in court as evidence against him.
“Yooo one of them man live on lime side street in Oldham,” he wrote, referring to another nearby town linked to some of Soyoye’s attackers.
Asked how he knew, Adedeji replied with teenage bluster. “I have my links,” he said.
He texted a postcode, along with a screenshot of a map. “Drop there,” he wrote.
After some unrelated banter, he sent his last text 20 minutes after joining the chat.
In the weeks after the Telegram exchange, teenagers from Moston — some in the chat group, others not — mounted a series of attacks to avenge Soyoye’s death.
First, Oni and the teenager who had set up the chat group confronted two students at their high school. There were no injuries, but a witness reported seeing a knife.
A month later, Oni and another teenager were captured on surveillance footage chasing an unidentified man from Rochdale. Oni struck the man twice with a machete, slicing his back, before the victim escaped into a convenience store.
Finally, four teenagers in a stolen SUV chased a man to a quiet Rochdale street, hacked at him with a machete and tried to run him over, surveillance footage showed. The victim survived but refused to cooperate with the police.
None of the attacks occurred anywhere near the postcode that Adedeji had sent in the Telegram chat. Nobody who lived in that postcode was harmed, either, although two suspects in Soyoye’s murder were later arrested in the area.
The police and prosecutors agree that Adedeji did not participate in the violence. But that did not matter.
In February 2021, Adedeji woke before dawn to armed officers banging on his family’s apartment door. They searched everywhere, including in his mother’s underwear drawer, but found no weapons.
The police wanted to talk to him after arresting Oni for his involvement in the Bonfire Night brawl.
Adedeji cooperated, volunteering his phone for detectives to copy. He was released on bail and asked to return to give a statement after officers established that he had not been part of the brawl.
He needed help, so he turned to someone who knew the legal system better than his parents: Roxy Legane, 31, a tall youth worker with discreet tattoos and a colorful wardrobe.
She connected him with a lawyer and accompanied him to the police station while his father waited outside.
The interview was short and friendly. Adedeji submitted a written statement, and the police said he was free to go.
With the arrest behind him, he focused on his university applications and published a book he had co-authored, featuring stories from Black teenagers across Manchester.
But the criminal case was just beginning. Detectives investigating Oni discovered the Telegram chat on his phone and sent it to an organized crime unit for review.
Neither Adedeji nor anyone else in the Telegram chat were known to the police. But investigators concluded that they’d stumbled upon a new gang, one with “a significant level of criminality” and the “structure and competence” to carry out attacks, according to a police document reviewed by The New York Times.
“They are attacking young black males at random,” the police wrote, adding, “They are in a gang war with Rochdale.”
In the Manchester area, where Adedeji grew up, authorities say that they have identified about 180 gangs. After reviewing the Telegram chat and other evidence, detectives concluded that everyone involved, including Adedeji, was a gang member, the police document shows.
In early April, as he recovered from emergency appendicitis surgery, Adedeji awoke to another predawn raid.
Without his pain medication, he spent 12 hours writhing in a holding cell. In a long interview, the police asked him about the M40 group. He explained that it was a collective of Moston rappers but said that he was not a member, according to a transcript of his interview. Confronted with the Telegram chat, he apologized for sending the texts in anger.
“Everyone was just talking rubbish,” he told the police, who had evidence that two of the teenagers in the chat group had taken part in violent attacks.
Adedeji expected to go home, as he had a month earlier. Instead, he spent nearly a week in juvenile detention, on 23-hour-a-day lockdown, charged for conspiracy to murder.
The Greater Manchester Police has a fractured relationship with Black residents, who make up about 3% of the nearly 3 million people in the region. Black people are stopped and searched at five times the rate of whites, and officers are much more likely to use force against them and to refer to their “physique” when doing so, according to the department’s own report.
Police and city officials declined repeated interview requests. The police did not respond to written questions about the case, their gang policies or their own reports.
The trial began in March this year in Manchester. Adedeji’s had 10 defendants. The judge, Justice Julian Goose, empaneled a jury on the first day, much speedier than the spirited haggling of the American voir dire process, which is meant to weed out bias among jurors.
Goose asked the prospective jurors two questions: Have you booked a holiday or a medical procedure for the coming six to eight weeks? And do you know any of these witnesses and places?
A jury of 12 people was quickly formed, all but two of whom appeared to be white.
To prove conspiracy to murder, prosecutors needed to show that Adedeji had entered into an agreement with others, with an intent to kill.
It did not matter that no one had actually been killed. The agreement is a crime.
As a backup, prosecutors also charged him with conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm with intent. They would need to prove only that Adedeji or others in the conspiracy intended to cause serious injury.
At trial, the lead prosecutor, Jonathan Sandiford, produced weapons — machetes and knives — and showed surveillance footage.
All the defendants, Sandiford said, were part of a street gang called M40. Some wore blue bandannas and threw gang signs. Some dealt drugs, protected their territory and wrote drill rap lyrics to brag about their exploits, he said.
“The defendants had a very personal motive for revenge,” Sandiford said. “The guilt and shame of knowing that they had run away and left their fellow gang member to die on the block.”
Adedeji had not touched any of the weapons, was not in the surveillance footage and had not left his friend to die. But in Sandiford’s telling, his childhood friendship with Soyoye became evidence against him.
Adedeji was playing blackjack with Legane in a courthouse hallway in May when the jury reached a verdict.
The courtroom was tense. Legane took a sharp breath when the foreman got to Defendant No. 7, Adedeji.
Not guilty of Count 1. Guilty of Count 2.
Adedeji and five other defendants were convicted of conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm with intent. The first four defendants were found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder.
Adedeji’s lawyer told him to prepare for the worst: up to 12 years in prison.
Legane organized a protest and gathered support from hundreds of people and organizations.
The 10 defendants were sentenced in early July. The four defendants convicted of conspiracy to murder each received at least 20 years in prison. Still, the defense lawyers thought that Adedeji would probably get no more than four years.
The judge was unmoved by the arguments of Adedeji’s supporters. He sentenced him to eight years in juvenile prison, the same as the remaining five defendants.
Adedeji lost his appeal against the sentence this month.
“Because of the color of my skin I got handed down a lengthy sentence,” Adedeji wrote earlier this year. “I don’t know how to feel about everything but I do know that every morning I get up with a smile on my face because I am proud of my skin color and proud of who I am.”