They Called Him a Gangster Out for Revenge. The Evidence? 6 Text Messages.
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? The older brother who made dinners for his siblings and read them bedtime stories?
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?
Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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. A 2021 bipartisan parliamentary report found years of systemic failure to improve the country’s troubled record on policing and race.
Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, England. The region’s police force received official censure for failing to record an estimated 80,000 crimes in 2020.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times
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 percent 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. Adedeji agonized over all this when he testified that morning in Manchester in what is the country’s first special court for gang-related cases. He wore a white shirt, a rain jacket, and a comically short tie. He was polite to a fault and so quiet that the judge twice told him to lean closer to the microphone.
“Mr. Adedeji, you’re essentially, absolutely not a member of a gang?” the junior prosecutor, Andrew Smith, asked, sounding incredulous.
“No,” Mr. Adedeji answered.
“You are absolutely not a violent man?”
“No, I am not.”
“You are absolutely not part of this conspiracy?”
“I am not.”
Mr. Adedeji’s life changed on 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.
Mr. Adedeji and Mr. Soyoye grew up together in Moston, a North Manchester neighborhood where wig shops and West African cafes flank the main street. Their mothers, both from Nigeria, attended the same church, and Mr. Soyoye often went to Mr. Adedeji’s home for jollof rice.
“He was a hungry kid. We both loved food.” Mr. Adedeji said. “He was like my little brother.”
The two were close friends and attended the same elementary school, where Mr. Adedeji at times felt a step behind. Only years later did he learn that he had dyslexia.
“I was 16, and I was still counting my fingers to do my times tables,” he said. “I was battling it, and I was thinking I was dumb.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, representing one at the House of Commons in London.
He grew to 6-foot-2, and his friends called him Stormzy because of his vague likeness to the British rapper.
Mr. Soyoye, whom Mr. 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.
When Mr. Adedeji saw his best friend running with troublemakers in the neighborhood, he warned him to correct course.
“Stop chilling with these kinds of people,” Mr. Adedeji recalled saying, “because you’re going to get yourself into trouble.”
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. Mr. 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 Mr. Soyoye swinging his machete before fleeing with his friends. But stab wounds slowed Mr. 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 Mr. Adedeji. He barely ate for weeks, and a psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants. “I was going through a stage where I was upset. I was angry,” Mr. Adedeji said.
Six Text Messages
Three days after Mr. Soyoye’s death, Mr. 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 own his admission, had taken part in the Bonfire Night fight.
The conversation quickly turned to retribution. Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Soyoye’s attackers.
Asked how he knew, Mr. 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 Mr. Soyoye’s death.
First, Mr. 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, Mr. Oni and another teenager were captured on surveillance footage chasing an unidentified man from Rochdale. Mr. 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 S.U.V. 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 Mr. Adedeji had sent in the Telegram chat. Nobody who lived in that postcode was harmed either, although two suspects in Mr. Soyoye’s murder were later arrested in the area.
The police and prosecutors agree that Mr. Adedeji did not participate in the violence. But that did not matter.
In February 2021, Mr. 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.
“I was shocked,” Mr. Adedeji said. “I didn’t know what I had done.”
The police wanted to talk to him after arresting Mr. Oni for his involvement in the Bonfire Night brawl.
Mr. 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, a tall youth worker with discreet tattoos and a colorful wardrobe.
Ms. Legane, 31, had last seen Mr. Adedeji a year earlier at an event arranged by her community organization, Kids of Colour. She was struck by his emotional intelligence. “I remember thinking, ‘This kid is very sweet,’” Ms. Legane said.
She connected him with a lawyer and accompanied him to the police station while his father waited outside.
The interview was short and friendly. When he said “not all police are bad,” an officer invited him to consider joining the force, Mr. Adedeji and Ms. Legane recall. Mr. 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 Mr. Oni discovered the Telegram chat on his phone and sent it to an organized crime unit for review.
Neither Mr. 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.”
Britain has waged war on gangs since riots erupted in 2011 after the police killing of a black man in London. Only a small fraction of people arrested during the riots turned out to be gang members but, nonetheless, a crackdown began.
In the Manchester area, where Mr. Adedeji grew up, the authorities say that they have identified about 180 gangs. After reviewing the Telegram chat and other evidence, detectives concluded that everyone involved, including Mr. Adedeji, was a gang member, the police document shows.
In early April, as he recovered from emergency appendicitis surgery, Mr. Adedeji awoke to another pre-dawn 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. “Half of these people in there, I promise you, they would never do anything like that.”
Mr. 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.
“I am another young black man who has been failed by the system,” he wrote in a blog post after he was released on bail. “The government don’t want to listen to us or spend on us.”
The Greater Manchester Police has a fractured relationship with Black residents, who make up about 3 percent of the nearly three 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.
Although Mr. Adedeji described his case as another example of racial inequity, the detectives, by contrast, viewed it as a step toward restoring trust in Black neighborhoods, where the police are criticized for neglecting crimes. That is a familiar dichotomy in many British and American cities, where minority communities can simultaneously feel underprotected and overpoliced.
“It is no secret,” that the Greater Manchester Police “has a reputation for failing young Black males,” one officer noted in a report about the case.
That “generational failure” has discouraged victims from supporting the prosecution in the case, the officer wrote. To restore faith in the justice system, the officer added, it was vital that Mr. Adedeji and his friends be prosecuted.
It is difficult to assess Manchester’s gang problem. The police received official censure for failing to record an estimated 80,000 crimes in 2020. A few violent deaths in the area made headlines the year that Mr. Soyoye was killed, fueling public concerns about gang violence. But hospital admissions for stabbings were down during that period. And nationally, crime remains on a downward trajectory.
‘I Don’t Want to Go to Jail’
The trial began in March this year in a Manchester “super courtroom” that had opened after a $2.5 million refurbishment intended to “get gang-related suspects in front of judges quicker,” Simon Wolfson, then the courts minister, said. Seventy-one such courtrooms have been refitted across Britain to handle cases with multiple defendants.
Prosecutors had christened it a few months earlier by convicting eight young men from Rochdale in the killing of Mr. Soyoye.
Then came Mr. Adedeji’s trial with 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.
Justice 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. Nearly everyone else in the courtroom was white, too, save for the defendants in the dock and their parents, who sat in the public gallery on the mezzanine floor comforting each other with optimistic forecasts for a quick dismissal.
Mr. Adedeji could not summon such optimism and turned to Ms. Legane for advice.
“What if the jury thinks I am a bad kid,” he had texted Ms. Legane. “I don’t want to go to jail.”
To prove conspiracy to murder, prosecutors needed to show that Mr. 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 Mr. Adedeji, or others in the conspiracy, intended to cause serious injury.
Until recently, conspiracy charges had little effect in Britain because they were difficult to prove, said John R. Spencer, a University of Cambridge law professor. Intercepted phone calls are inadmissible, but messaging apps and social media have “given teeth to a previously toothless legal rule,” he said.
Mr. Adedeji’s designation as a gang member simplified the prosecutors’ job, according to lawyers and legal experts. Gangs, almost by definition, form criminal agreements to hurt their rivals.
The prosecutors in Mr. Adedeji’s case declined interview requests, citing professional rules of conduct. In a written statement, the Crown Prosecution Service said that there was no broad strategy of using conspiracy charges.
“We do not select the cases that come to us and can only give charging decisions on those that do,” the statement noted, adding, “It was right that we put these defendants before the court.”
At trial, the lead prosecutor, Jonathan Sandiford, produced weapons — machetes and knives — and showed surveillance footage that drew gasps from the public gallery.
All the defendants, Mr. 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,” Mr. Sandiford said. “The guilt and shame of knowing that they had run away and left their fellow gang member to die on the block.”
Mr. Adedeji had not touched any of the weapons, was not in the surveillance footage and had not left his friend to die. But in Mr. Sandiford’s telling, his childhood friendship with Mr. Soyoye, forged over jollof rice and rugby, became evidence against him.
“His affiliation to the gang came through his relationship,” Mr. Sandiford said.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Adedeji was further implicated because Mr. Oni had saved his telephone number under a nickname, “Stormzy,” demonstrating how close the two were, and because Mr. Adedeji had been trusted enough to be invited to the Telegram chat.
A Gang? Or a Rap Group?
The jury was confronted with a core dispute: Either M40 was a gang, as the prosecution held, or a drill rap group, as the defendants argued.
Drill, which started in Chicago, is the anthem of Britain’s austerity generation. Its violent, nihilistic lyrics reflect the grimness of lives cut off from opportunity, said Franklyn Addo, a youth worker and author who submitted a witness statement in the trial.
The Crown Prosecution Service, by contrast, says that gangs use drill music to “taunt rivals, incite violence or glamorize criminality.” The police in London keep an index of drill videos and have asked YouTube to remove hundreds of them, a governmental response with echoes of American debates about gangsta rap in the 1990s and of the recent police response to drill music in New York. The British authorities have handed drill artists like Digga D with gang injunctions — court orders requiring them to seek approval before releasing new music.
“It is the policing of Black expression and Black sentiment,” Mr. Addo said. Black Britons are pathologized as so dangerous, he said, that the authorities mistakenly believe that “if we express violence in our music, then we are more inclined to commit that in real life.”
In Mr. Adedeji’s case, the prosecutors treated M40’s lyrics as confessions. They lingered over every syllable, emphasizing the occasional racial slur.
A police detective testified to interpret the slang. But he acknowledged learning about the genre from Wikipedia. And the police and prosecutors mistook a London drill group for one in Manchester because both wore purple bandannas.
“People of my generation flocked in their millions to see Marlon Brando’s murderous Godfather, or Al Pacino’s blood-drenched Scarface,” Adam Kane, a senior defense lawyer who represented another defendant, argued in court.
“That is what we call entertainment.”
In testimony, Mr. Oni was adamant that M40 was a rap group and that only four other defendants were members. Mr. Adedeji, who does not rap, was not part of the group.
But Mr. Oni made the prosecutors’ job easier. The surveillance video showed him to be violent, and his lyrics were, too
“People write the best lyrics from their own experience,” Mr. Sandiford said.
“It is fiction,” Mr. Oni countered. “It is an exaggeration.”
The prosecutors had scant evidence to prove that Mr. Adedeji was in consort with the others, sothey mined the teenager’s online life for evidence of a gang affiliation.
A picture of Mr. Adedeji holding a wad of cash to his ear in a post that mimicked a well-known Instagram pose was used as evidence of a criminal lifestyle. Prosecutors also claimed that Mr. Adedeji was in a video retrieved from Mr. Oni’s phone, wearing a blue bandanna and taunting the Rochdale group. But the more times they played the dark and grainy video in court, the clearer it became that Mr. Adedeji was not in it. The judge let jurors consider the video but urged them to be cautious before deciding who was in it.
Ms. Legane attended court daily, standing in for the defendants’ parents who could not risk their paychecks. She transcribed every word and tweeted daily trial updates. She became a chaperone and fierce advocate for the defendants. She raised money for lunches and Uber rides for Mr. Adedeji and three other defendants who were out on bail. The teenagers handed her their cellphones whenever they went into court.
To stave off his exhaustion and trepidation, Mr. Adedeji began doodling in court. In one drawing, he sketched himself hanging from a rope while wearing a suit with “not guilty” scribbled over it.
“It’s hard to hear what they’re saying about me,” he said one day after court. Sending the Telegram messages, he acknowledged, was a mistake. “I think the prosecutors are forgetting that we were all kids when this happened, and kids make mistakes.”
Tell Us About ‘Biggie Small’
Mr. Adedeji looked small in the witness box last April as he testified in his own defense.
He emphatically denied being in a gang. He cried while recalling Mr. Soyoye’s death. He said that he had joined the Telegram chat because he thought that his friends were organizing a memorial. He did not know who had killed his friend when he joined the chat three days after the killing, he said. He acknowledged being angry but denied plotting revenge.
Then Mr. Smith, the junior prosecutor, began his cross-examination.
“You said you were young and dumb at the time,” Mr. Smith said, sharply. “Are you still young and dumb now?”
“No,” Mr. Adedeji answered.
Mr. Smith brought up the contested meaning of Mr. Oni’s call to “touch something.” Mr. Oni had said that the word suggested “any form of violence.” Mr. Adedeji said that he understood “touch” meant to stab. But he denied sharing that intention.
“I sent a postcode,” he said. “I never said I meant to go and kill someone.”
During the cross-examination, it seemed that the prosecutors barely understood the hip-hop lifestyle they were putting on trial. That was especially apparent when Mr. Smith questioned Mr. Adedeji about an online conversation that came after Mr. Soyoye’s killing but that predated the Telegram chat.
Mr. Adedeji had been frustrated as teenagers mocked his friend’s death online. One night, he confronted someone called “Prince Abu” on Snapchat for posting a disparaging video about Mr. Soyoye.
Prince Abu denied any involvement in the killing and cautioned against jumping to conclusions. That’s how Biggie Smalls was killed, because everyone thought that he had killed Tupac, he said, referring to the two American rappers who were murdered in the 1990s. He misspelled their names.
“I just find you a weird person for posting that,” Mr. Adedeji told Prince Abu. “If I ever find out you post something like that again I am going to kill you.”
The prosecutors used this to argue that the conspiracy had taken shape even before the Telegram chat.
“So tell us about Biggie Small,” Mr. Smith asked.
“Tell you about Biggie Smalls?” Mr. Adedeji responded, confused.
“Prince Abu was talking to you about Biggie Small. People being killed previously. So what do you know about Biggie Small?” Mr. Smith pressed.
Biggie Smalls was a rapper in New York, Mr. Adedeji explained. “It’s got nothing to do with me,” he added.
“Killed two people,” Mr. Smith continued. “It’s there in black and white,” he said. “What’s all this about? This is your conversation now, remember?”
Only when the jurors laughed did Mr. Smith drop that line of questioning.
Mr. Adedeji was playing blackjack with Ms. Legane in a courthouse hallway in May when the jury reached a verdict. They paused for a long, teary hug. There was no time to rush his parents to court.
The courtroom was tense. Ms. Legane took a sharp breath when the foreman got to Defendant No. 7, Mr. Adedeji.
Not guilty of Count 1. Guilty of Count 2.
Mr. Adedeji, along with five other defendants, was convicted of conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm with intent. The first four defendants were found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder.
Ms. Legane burst into guttural sobs so loud that the judge ordered her out of court. Mr. Adedeji stood in stunned silence as the judge ordered his arrest.
As she left the courtroom, Ms. Legane shouted, “We love you!” Mr. Adedeji disappeared from view as he was led to a basement cell.
In a courthouse hallway, Ms. Legane made dazed calls to parents. “It is bad news, I am afraid,” she said over and over again.
“What do we do now?” she asked between calls, clutching the teenagers’ phones.
She regrouped at a nearby bar with relatives of some of the defendants. Over fries and drinks, they jotted down things the young men would need — prescriptions, a change of clothes, the prison chaplain’s number.
Mr. Adedeji’s lawyer told him to prepare for the worst, up to 12 years in prison.
Ms. Legane organized a protest and gathered support from hundreds of people and organizations. Mr. Adedeji’s representative in Parliament, Lucy Powell, wrote to the judge condemning the “frequent use of gang narratives” in court.
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 Mr. Adedeji would probably get no more than four years.
The judge was unmoved by the arguments of Mr. Adedeji’s supporters. He sentenced him to eight years in juvenile prison, the same as the remaining five defendants.
Mr. Adedeji did not flinch but the public gallery heaved with fury and wailing relatives left the courtroom one after another. The judge issued stern orders for silence and, when the public ignored him, he rose to leave the courtroom. Just then, one defendant’s father shouted “racist.”
Mr. Adedeji lost his appeal against the sentence this month. He is still in touch with Ms. Legane through the prison email service.
“Because of the color of my skin I got handed down a lengthy sentence,” Mr. 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.”
Jane Bradley contributed reporting.