Early one morning in Moss Side, Manchester, several winters ago, a group of teenagers gathered at a youth club to make a rap video. The shoot had been arranged by Kemoy Walker, an award-winning youth worker who is now a head of year at a large school in the city and an ambassador for Manchester city council.
Walker’s organisation, “Manchestarz”, had attracted public funding, including from Greater Manchester Police (GMP), for work that engaged young people in music. The video, shot by a film student at Manchester Metropolitan University who had answered a call on the social network Instagram for somebody with the necessary skills, was the perfect project. “We met early in the morning, everybody came on time,” recalls Walker. “We made the video in the park – it was quite cold – and it was really good. It was friends coming together and creating music.”
The rap and video was entitled Active Only, or AO. Walker says it was a term that young people in Moss Side were then using: “They used to say, ‘I’m active,’ meaning they’re up for going out. ‘Active only’ meant a group that was always out and about.” They made the video, mixed the rap track, and posted it to YouTube.
More than a year later, the video would be used as a key piece of evidence to convict seven teenagers of murder and four of manslaughter under controversial “joint enterprise” laws. The video – organised by a youth worker, part-funded by the GMP – was proof, according to the CPS, that Active Only was actually a violent gang that controlled territory in Manchester.
On 12 May 2016, 12 young Moss Side men, all black or mixed race, were in the area of Broadfield Park, known locally as “the rec”, in front of Powerhouse, the publicly funded youth club facility built with a millennium lottery grant in 2000. They were not one close-knit group of friends, they say; some were more engaged with music – three had been in the AO video, in non-rapping, peripheral appearances – others had grown keener on playing football, including two dedicated enough to play semi-professionally.
The afternoon took a dreadful, violent turn when they saw Abdul Hafidah, 18, whom some said they feared and resented. Hafidah is alleged to have attacked one of the group a year earlier and broken his arm with a baseball bat, another said he had recently threatened him. Hafidah was apparently drunk, and carrying a large knife. The group started to chase him, going across the traffic on Princess Parkway, the dual carriageway that bisects Moss Side, which was filmed on CCTV and shown in court. Some of the teenagers joined the chase and did nothing further. Some assaulted Hafidah when they caught him, badly beating him. But when a woman on her way home from work, one of many witnesses, shouted at them to leave him alone, all ran off except two. Then one, Devonte Cantrill, 19, wielded a knife, and stabbed Hafidah, who later died from those knife wounds.
Hafidah’s sister, Safia, would read a victim impact statement at the end of the subsequent murder trials, speaking of how the killing had devastated her family. However, the way GMP investigated, the Crown Prosecution Service brought charges, and the judge, Sir Peter Openshaw, presided over the trials, one held in Manchester the other in Preston, have led to complaints of racism by the defendants and their families, and prominent supporters, who argue that the outcome is a miscarriage of justice.
Instead of charging Cantrill with murder, and any other participants in the chase or violence with specific offences according to what they did individually, which could include affray, assault, violent disorder or no crime at all, the CPS charged all 12 with the killing itself. The prosecution alleged that all 12 were in a gang, or loyal to the gang, and that they united to kill Hafidah because he was from a rival gang, and had encroached on their “territory”, centred on the rec.
The gang they were alleged to be in was Active Only – AO. A key element of the GMP evidence and prosecution case, to prove the existence of this ruthless gang, was the AO video that had been made two years earlier. Its circumstances, that it was made as part of publicly funded projects to encourage young people to be involved in creativity, in which GMP itself had been a partner, were not presented at the trials. “That was not a gang video,” Walker said. “It was a project we did.” But Walker would not be called to give evidence.
The gang narrative formed the basis of a prosecution under the “joint enterprise” law. A controversial legal mechanism, it holds all participants in a violent incident, however minor individual actions, equally guilty if they are found to have intentionally “encouraged and assisted” anybody who committed the most serious violence.
For the defendants and their families, the fact that the juries in both trials were all white, as were all the lawyers, and the judge, was distressing, particularly as Manchester and Preston are both multicultural cities with large black and Asian populations. The defendants and their families saw the video presented in court by the prosecution as disturbing, portraying the teens as menacing. The juries in the two trials convicted seven of the teenagers of murder; four more were convicted of manslaughter. Oddly, one older man, who had been alleged in both trials to be the ringleader, recruiting the younger members to attack Hafidah, was acquitted in the second trial.
Openshaw, a senior judge on the northern circuit hearing his last case before retiring, sentenced the 11 to a total minimum in prison of 168 years.
Now, three convicted of murder, Nathaniel “Jay” Williams, 17 at the time, Reanu Walters, then 18, and Durrell Goodall, then 19, are preparing an appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, to contest the gang narrative constructed against them, and the evidence, including the video, presented to support it.
An appeal in 2019, arguing that splitting the trial – which was done due to the practical difficulties of charging so many people together – produced injustice, was turned down by the Court of Appeal.
The three are represented by Keir Monteith QC, from Garden Court chambers, whose barristers have forcefully argued that joint enterprise prosecutions, and portraying young black men as gang members, are based too often on racist stereotyping. They argue that rather than charging participants in chaotic, spontaneous violent incidents for offences according to their actions, collective prosecutions have led to “black youths serving hundreds of years inside for crimes they just didn’t commit”.
Amnesty International has argued that young black men are classed as gang members and criminalised “based on weak indicators”, including themselves having been victims of violence, or “for reasons as trivial as the music they listen to and the videos they watch online”.
Research published in January 2016 by Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke, senior lecturers at Manchester Metropolitan University, also argued that the “gang narrative” is racist. They found that although just 6% of serious violence in the Manchester area had been committed by black young people, the people listed on GMP’s gangs databases were 81% black. In February, 1,000 young black men were taken off the Metropolitan police’s Trident gang “matrix”, after a review found they posed no or little risk of committing any violence.
Monteith argues that the Moss Side prosecution is an extreme example, extraordinary, he says, for how little solid evidence was produced to support the allegation that the teenagers were members of a gang fearsome enough to control territory in a tough, inner-city area of Manchester.
A GMP officer, PC Bryan Deighton, gave evidence in both trials, placing the Moss Side teenagers in a tradition of globally infamous gang violence, likening the alleged rivalry between AO and Hafidah’s alleged gang, Rusholme Cripz, to the world renowned, decades-long serious criminality of the Los Angeles Bloods and Crips. Deighton directly compared AO to Doddington, one of the gangs from a notorious previous era of drug-dealing and gun violence in Moss Side in the 1990s and early 2000s, saying they controlled similar territory.
But Monteith argues that the evidence to suggest AO was a real gang, let alone one that controlled territory, was thin. Only Cantrill, who had a conviction for violence, and two other of the Moss Side teenagers, had any relevant previous criminal record. Five had no criminal records at all, three had minor previous convictions that Openshaw said were not relevant. The teenagers were mostly at college, had good, even glowing character references, and were planning further study or work when the incident erupted.
They all denied being in a gang, even being one group of friends. Walters and others said they were not particularly friendly with Cantrill, just that he happened to be in the park at the same time as them that day. All denied that they had any intention or idea that the chase of Hafidah would end in him being killed.
A welfare worker said a defendant had told him the day after the killing that seven of the teenagers were “part of AO”. In court, the defendant denied that conversation; in summing up Openshaw said the defendant had said AO “meant nothing to him”, but someone had told him earlier that AO was a gang.
Of the 11 convicted, just one was still with Cantrill when he stabbed Hafidah. Some were on the other side of the road or even further away.
Neither GMP nor the CPS advanced any case that the teenagers were involved in drug-dealing, the standard financial reason for a gang to control territory – or, indeed, involved in any other criminal activity. The allegation of gang activity was based on “affiliation”, an allegiance of belonging or loyalty, based centrally on the 2014 rap video. Also advanced as evidence were some photographs and social media images, taken from thousands on the teenagers’ mobile phones, showing some of them making AO hand signals, and some with red imagery. Deighton said the red showed emulation of the notorious LA gang Bloods. But as the teenagers and their families point out now, none of them habitually wore red.
Openshaw said in his sentencing remarks that there was “a long history of gang feuding and tit-for-tat violence”, but the facts agreed in the trial by the prosecution and defence consisted of the rap video and four incidents. One was a stabbing, by the rapper himself in 2015, of a friend of Hafidah’s, which had not been prosecuted as a gang incident. The other three incidents were violence allegedly committed against two of the defendants, Reanu Walters and Durrell Ford, whose arm was broken in the 2015 attack, and another Moss Side teenager, who was not a defendant.
The call for a review of the case is supported by the local Labour MP, Lucy Powell, who argues that similar incidents involving groups of white teenagers are not similarly prosecuted, the academics Williams and Clarke, and Eithne Quinn, a senior lecturer at Manchester University who has appeared as a defence expert in cases where rap and drill music have been advanced as prosecution evidence. Angela Lawrence, a campaigner against Manchester gang violence in its era of notoriety, and a member of the police and crime panel for Greater Manchester Combined Authority, also supports the group, arguing that it was a racist, “lazy” prosecution.
“We’ve transformed Manchester, and Moss Side, in recent years, in partnership with GMP,” Lawrence says. “This was a terrible incident, but those boys were not a gang, they weren’t involved in drugs or crime, they didn’t all kill that young person.
“I would not be lending my support if I thought they were all guilty. But you have to look at the facts of the case, and you cannot ignore racism in the way the police went for joint enterprise here. They should have brought in experts on the community.”
Walker, who knew several of the boys well, is also supportive, and particularly bewildered at the use of the rap video. “Labelling them as a gang was wrong, it shouldn’t have happened. It was absolute rubbish to say they were ‘controlling territory’ because they hung around in the park. The boys chilled as friends. They came to the youth club from a young age and we did a lot of activities. They were never classed as at risk – if they were, their activities would have been restricted. We were still working with them at the time, building up their CVs and looking at opportunities for them.”
The defendants’ families also have serious concerns about the handling of the trial by Openshaw, including the admission of the AO video, his summing up in the first trial on the basis that AO was indisputably a gang, and not warning the jury to avoid preconceived or prejudiced views of rap music.
They also had concerns about whether Openshaw could fully separate himself emotionally from the details of the incident. Considered a hardliner by some barristers on the circuit, his father and grandfather were also senior judges in Preston.
In 1981, Openshaw suffered a horrific trauma when his father, Judge William Openshaw, was killed in a stabbing, by a man, John Smith, he had sentenced years before to borstal.
Remi Williams, Jay Williams’s father, who gave up his job as a quantity surveyor so he could attend the trial every day, said he “had a sinking feeling” when he looked up Openshaw on the internet and saw the reporting of his father’s stabbing.
“Obviously, I feel sorry for a man who has been through that, and as a parent I sympathise with the parents of the victim in this incident,” Williams says. “But I didn’t see how a judge could impartially try the same offence as the one that killed his own father.
“From the minute our boys walked in, the only black people in that courtroom, I never felt that the judge saw them for who they really are. One person was the knife man; my son and his friends weren’t even friends with him, they were a close group who all liked playing football. They never committed any crime ever before this, but my son is serving 19 years in prison. It’s a nightmare; I can’t fathom it.”
A CPS spokesperson said that the gang prosecution was justified, that the 2014 rap video had “referred to territory”, and pointed to the fact that the convictions were arrived at by juries: “Our practice on gang-related offences has always been to be extremely careful not to use that label when it is not justified. Evidence of the gang affiliation of each individual defendant was considered carefully to see if it was relevant and used to show motive and to rebut any defences.
“It was the prosecution case that these defendants acted together in chasing down Abdul Hafidah, outnumbering him and subjecting him to a violent attack in which he died. Evidence at the trial included many hours of CCTV, more than 20 eyewitness accounts, DNA, as well as evidence from the mobile phones and social media accounts.”
GMP declined to answer specific questions about PC Deighton’s evidence, the rap video, or the way the gang allegations were presented. A spokesperson said in a statement: “This tragic and complex case was investigated by GMP and presented to the CPS who authorised charges. Prosecution evidence was laid out before a jury during two trials and the jury returned their verdicts on the basis of the evidence heard. GMP will cooperate with the CCRC, should any assistance be required.”
Openshaw declined to respond to questions about his handling of the trial or families’ concerns, citing a convention that judges do not comment publicly on cases they have heard.
Akemia Minott, another experienced Moss Side youth worker with Williams, Walters and several of the other teenagers, attended both trials, which she believes were a travesty against the defendants and the neighbourhood itself. Working at the time with Manchester Young Lives, another charitable initiative whose partners included Manchester city council and GMP, she provided a character reference for Williams after his conviction. She wrote to Openshaw that he was “an exceptional role model” whom, “due to his articulate and intelligent approach”, she had advised to apply for university. “The joint enterprise murder charge seems inappropriate and unfair,” she wrote, “and, in my opinion, has the potential to be a miscarriage of justice.”
Openshaw acknowledged Williams’s character witnesses, the good testimonials for Walters and several others, the fact that five of the 11 had no criminal convictions and three had no relevant convictions. But the judge said: “Although each denied it, I find as a fact that each convicted defendant was a member of the … AO (or ‘Active Only’) gang, or at least was affiliated to it.”
Principally, he said, this was due to the fact that “some had AO signs or symbols on their mobile telephones”.
He then sentenced the 11 to a minimum 168 years collectively, seven for murder, four for manslaughter, for a stabbing that only one carried out.