A “wicked” and “evil” stepmother was on Thursday found guilty of murdering a six-year-old boy, after abusing, poisoning and eventually beating him to death.
Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’ father was also convicted, but of manslaughter not murder, for encouraging the killing – including sending a text message to his partner less than 24 hours before the fatal attack, instructing her to “end” his son.
The court heard how Emma Tustin, 32, repeatedly banged Arthur’s head on a hard surface in the hours leading up to his death, after she and 29-year-old Thomas Hughes, the child’s father, carried out a campaign of abuse, including starvation and then force-feeding him food covered in salt.
Warning: this report contains distressing images
Prosecutors described the couple as “utterly ruthless, unthinking and pitiless” after details emerged about the case, including that Tustin photographed Arthur as he lay dying in the hallway of her home on Cranmore Road, Solihull. She went on to send the images to Hughes.
Arthur eventually died, during lockdown last year, on 16 June, from an “unsurvivable” brain injury, Coventry Crown Court was told.
Twelve minutes after carrying out the assault, Tustin called 999 – in a recording now widely shared online – and told the operator Arthur had fallen over and “banged his head”, and was “losing colour”. She later told officers, in person, that her stepson had been trying to “headbutt” her when he fell over and repeatedly banged his head on the floor.
Arthur’s stepmother attempted to explain his other injuries by claiming he must have thrown himself down the stairs, despite evidence suggesting he was barely strong enough to pick up his own bedding.
Harrowing footage shows the six-year-old in the final hours of his life, stumbling around the living room he was forced to sleep in, with no mattress, grimacing in pain, as he tries to move a blanket. Arthur can be heard screeching “no one loves me” multiple times, which no one responds to.
Following the verdicts today – which came after less than seven hours of deliberation – Arthur’s maternal grandmother, Madeleine Halcrow, called Tustin and Hughes “cold, calculating, systematic torturers”.
“They’re wicked, evil,” she said after Tustin was convicted of murder and Hughes of manslaughter. “There’s no word for them.”
Jurors also convicted Tustin of two counts of child cruelty, including salt-poisoning and withholding food and drink from Arthur.
She had already admitted two other cruelty counts by wilfully assaulting the child on three occasions and isolating him, including by forcing him to stand in the hallway for up to 14 hours a day, as part of a draconian punishment regime.
During Tustin’s five days in the witness box, she was asked to respond to recordings of Arthur in clear distress, including film of him kicking and punching himself, and audio of him repeatedly groaning in apparent pain.
She claimed she had not realised at the time how bad the abuse was, leading prosecutor Jonas Hankin QC to say it was clear from the tone of her commands to Arthur that she had “relished” being cruel towards him.
“I did get it wrong, very wrong,” Tustin responded. “It shouldn’t have happened, but it did.”
It also emerged on Thursday that she had received various threats while in prison and awaiting trial, including inmates throwing salt at her. At a pre-trial hearing in April 2021, Tustin’s barrister Mary Prior QC said her client had suffered “a significant deterioration in her mental health”.
Hughes, who had denied any wrongdoing, was also convicted of the cruelty offences which Tustin had admitted – but was cleared of withholding food and drink, or of poisoning his own son with salt.
During the trial, jurors heard how Hughes, of Stroud Road, Solihull, encouraged Tustin killing Arthur and at one point told his son: “Watch you little c***, I’ll bury you six feet under.”
Hughes claimed in court he was “manipulated”, “mentally abused” and “gaslighted” by Tustin into going along with her behavioural regime, which began with the strict use of “chair rules” and a “naughty step”, introduced by his partner.
He told jurors in evidence that he had “probably” placed the couple’s relationship above the welfare of his son.
At the jury’s request, the judge ordered a minute’s silence for Arthur after the verdicts were read out.
‘No safeguarding concerns’
A key part of the trial was to expose the failings of various authorities, including child services and the police, which likely contributed to Arthur’s death.
It emerged, for instance, that he had been seen by social workers just two months before his death, after concerns were raised by his paternal grandmother Joanne Hughes, but it was concluded there were “no safeguarding concerns”.
Another concern was how Arthur came to live with Tustin in the first place. The six-year-old was put into the custody of his father after his biological mother, Olivia Labinjo-Halcrow, 29, stabbed her partner Gary Cunningham to death in February 2019 and was given an 11-year prison sentence.
Hughes met Tustin online and the couple moved with Arthur into her home near Solihull, in the West Midlands, when the government declared a lockdown in March 2020.
However, Tustin, who had already had two of her own children taken into care, repeatedly complained she could not cope with Arthur’s behaviour during lockdown and begged Hughes to let him return to his grandparents.
Ms Halcrow, Arthur’s maternal grandmother, reportedly told the MailOnline that Tustin was “obsessed” with the idea Thomas would “go back to Olivia” when she was released from prison, and that “the only way she could get Olivia out of her life was by getting rid of Arthur”.
In all, social workers and police are accused of missing four key opportunities to help Arthur last year:
16 April: Ms Hughes, Arthur’s paternal grandmother, calls social services to say she has seen her grandson covered in bruises. Social workers go on to visit Tustin’s home, but fail to spot the bruises.
Jayne Kavanagh, one of the two social workers who examined Arthur that day, later says she only saw a “faint” bruise, which was put down to play-fighting with another child, by Hughes and Tustin.
20 April: Ms Hughes tells Arthur’s school what she has seen. A member of staff calls social services, but is told the bruises were caused by “play-fighting”.
Between April and June: Having previously reported his concerns to the police, Arthur’s uncle, Daniel Hughes, contacts West Midlands Police to enquire about his complaint.
He tells officers he has tried to visit Tustin and Hughes’ home, to which an officer says he will be convicted of breaching Covid lockdown rules if he tries to do so again.
“Weeks” before Arthur’s death on 16 June: John Dutton, Tustin’s stepfather, makes an anonymous call to social services “weeks” before Arthur’s death, having learned he is being abused by his father.
In court, Mr Dutton tells jurors that Hughes, Arthur’s father, admits going “to town” on his son. Asked by Mr Hankin QC, the prosecutor, what he took this to mean at the time, Mr Dutton replies: “[Hughes] belt the life out of [Arthur].”
Ms Halcrow, Arthur’s maternal grandmother, is also said to have told MailOnline: “He was let down by social services and the West Midlands Police. There was an opportunity to save him and it wasn’t taken.”
‘Lessons to be learned’
After his death, Arthur was found to have 130 injuries all over his body, after being hit, slapped, kicked, punched and beaten, “over and over”.
The usually “chubby, happy” and “always smiley” boy, was “deprived of adequate food and water”, forced to stand in isolation for hours a day, and repeatedly beaten, punched and smacked.
Jurors were also told he was left a weakened and frail shadow of himself, with one witness describing how he looked “broken” before his death.
Solihull’s Local Child Safeguarding Partnership said it was now carrying out an independent review into the “terrible tragedy” of Arthur's death, including the contact with social services.
The Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) said it had also “conducted and concluded” an investigation into the West Midlands force’s handling of the case, and would publish its report in due course.
Meanwhile, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said Tustin and Hughes’ convictions “must be just the start of the process to uncover the full chain of events that ultimately led to Arthur’s death, and to establish the lessons that need to be learned to prevent this awful case from happening again”.
Detective inspector Laura Harrison, the West Midlands Police officer who led the investigation, described the couple’s behaviour as “horrific”, “evil”, and unfathomable.
She added: “It’s the worst case I have had to investigate.”
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