Woman, 32, accused of murdering her stepson, six, denies poisoning him with salt after calling him ‘Satan’ in text messages and claims she was ‘threatened into silence by his father’, court hears
A woman accused of murdering her six-year-old stepson by poisoning him with salt in a brutal ‘campaign of cruelty’ told a jury she was threatened into silence by his ‘bullying’ father.
Emma Tustin, 32, said she was ‘scared’ by the behaviour of Thomas Hughes, 29, in the weeks before Arthur Labinjo-Hughes died from fatal head injuries.
The pair allegedly subjected the boy to ‘systematic, cruel behaviour’, including poisoning him and forcing him to stand on a hallway step for 14 hours a day.
Prosecutors say the alleged abuse met the ‘medical definition of child torture’.
Hughes and Tustin deny murder and multiple counts of child cruelty.
Emma Tustin (pictured) and Hughes are said to have subjected Arthur (right) to systematic cruelty ‘designed to torture’ the boy, 6. They deny murder and multiple child cruelty charges
Arthur was ordered to sleep on the floor and ‘deprived of basic living comforts’ after moving into Tustin’s home during the first pandemic lockdown last March, it is claimed.
He died in June 2020 from ‘unsurvivable brain injuries’, while in Tustin’s care.
Giving evidence, the mother-of-two told jurors how she watched Hughes ‘constantly’ smack Arthur, and that she saw him headbutt the youngster and pin him against a door.
Tustin claimed that when she confronted Hughes over the alleged abuse, he threatened to report her to social services.
Describing the living environment of her council house near Solihull, West Midlands, Tustin said: ‘There was shouting, there was attitude and then there was the violence that I had seen that Tom had done to Arthur.
‘I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to be in the house. To be honest, I don’t think I wanted to be alive.
Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, six, was allegedly killed after suffering systemic abuse which matched the ‘medical definition of child torture’ a court has been told
‘It started in April; it was the smacking on the legs. In May, it was horrendous. It was the worst it had become.
‘I said that I disagreed with it and it wasn’t the way to go and he told me to mind my own business.
‘After that I said I was going to report him to social services. He said to me he would tell Arthur to lie and social services would take my own kids from me and because of my mental health issues he would tell them I was unstable.
‘I was scared. And it stopped me in my tracks because I didn’t want to risk losing my children.
‘I didn’t want social services to think I was unstable or unable to look after them. The thought of losing them – I just ignored what he was doing.’
Arthur had been in the full-time care of Hughes after his mother Olivia Labinjo-Halcrow was accused of killing her new partner, Gary Cunningham, in February 2019.
Hughes and Tustin met online and he moved into her home with Arthur when the country entered lockdown.
The pair are said to have subjected Arthur to ‘violence and intimidation’ in ‘brutal controlling circumstances’.
Tustin said Hughes ‘rammed’ Arthur on the front door, gave him a dead leg and stood on his stomach.
Of one alleged incident, she said: ‘Arthur was screaming and Tom shouted at him. He said “if you don’t shut your f****** mouth I’m going to throw you out the window”.
‘Arthur said “no daddy, not the window”.’
Tustin was confronted over text messages she sent to Hughes where she called Arthur ‘Satan’, a ‘nagging little s***’, and other ‘unpleasant names’.
She told the jury at Coventry Crown Court: ‘I would tell him to shut up and call him a f***** liar. But things I said in text messages, they were vile.’
Asked why she sent a smiling emoji in response to a picture of a Taser gun sent by Hughes with the caption ‘gonna thwack him’, Tustin said: ‘Because I didn’t know what to say. I just felt sick.’
In one message, Hughes threatened to ‘take his jaw off his shoulders’ and told Tustin: ‘Just gag him or something. Tie some rope around his mouth with a sock in it or something.’
She denied ever acting on those instructions.
Earlier the trial heard that Arthur was poisoned with so much salt that medics questioned their machinery when he was admitted to hospital with fatal brain injuries on June 16 last year.
A touching note was left among the floral tributes to six-year-old Arthur at his former home
An expert suggested he was given at least 34 grams of salt – equivalent to six teaspoons – leading to hospital readings which were ‘off the scale’.
Jurors were shown camera footage from the day before Arthur collapsed showing Tustin carrying a bottle of salt.
Giving evidence, Tustin said she regularly used salt to treat recurrent water infections.
Asked if she put salt in Arthur’s food, she said: ‘No, I did not. ‘I needed it for myself because every night I was in the shower using quite a lot of salt.
‘I always made sure I was topped up with salt.
‘I didn’t know anything about salt poisoning until I got arrested and it was on the indictment. I was just baffled by it and I’m still baffled by it, even more so now.’
Tustin, who the court heard has four children to three men, denied abusing Arthur but admitted ‘giving up’ on him.
She said the pair were ‘friends straight away’ when they met for the first time in August 2019 and that she ‘still loved him’.
Tustin said: ‘I was depressed, I was stressed out, I was tired and I was just drained.
‘I still loved [Arthur] but I couldn’t cope with it any more.
‘I asked Tom to take him back to his mum’s numerous times but he said no. I couldn’t cope with the behaviour, the nastiness. It was going downhill rapidly and I didn’t know how to cope with that.’
The court was told that despite not going to work during lockdown, Hughes would ‘disappear’ and leave Tustin alone with Arthur.
She said: ‘I needed a break. I needed some time for myself. But he refused and said he was ashamed of Arthur and he wouldn’t take him with him.
Tustin added: ‘I just felt like running out of the house and never going back. I felt like I had fallen in a trap like I had in relationships before. I felt ashamed for being put back in a situation like that.’
A court heard Arthur (pictured with Hughes) was forced to eat salt before he was killed
Despite getting engaged on New Year’s Eve in 2019, Tustin said Hughes turned into ‘another person’ and made her feel ‘worthless’.
Tustin said: ‘He called me a f***ing slag. He told me I was disgusting and that he only slept with me because he was bored. ‘He told me I was a disgrace and to go and have another breakdown.
‘I felt sad. I felt like I was worth nothing.’
She recalled: ‘He kicked the door right off the hinges, the living room door. There was no door there. All the screws were on the floor.
‘He raised his hand to me and screamed and shouted in my face.’
By the end of May, Tustin said Arthur was spending the majority of his days isolated in a hallway.
She admitted: ‘Looking back now with the evidence there has been, it was unacceptable and I can’t imagine how he was feeling.
‘He was either looking at the floor or the door. He would put his food in my trainers, little things like that. It just seemed like he wanted attention.
‘He just wanted somebody to talk to. At this point I had given up on Arthur. I didn’t give him the time I had given him. Because I was contributing to the rules with Tom he didn’t think he could come to me anyway.
‘It just progressed, progressed, progressed and he got angrier. I didn’t understand how he was so angry. The poor child was getting angry and frustrated.
‘He had no one to speak to and when he was spoken to it was just abuse. There is nothing I can say to change that.’
The court heard how one witness claimed Arthur was ‘too weak’ to even hold a glass of water to his mouth on the day before he collapsed.
They also said his ‘clothes looked dirty, his lips cracked, he could barely open his mouth to speak, his hair was dirty, his nails were dirty and he looked malnourished, gaunt and worn-out.
In a 999 call made 12 minutes after Arthur was found unresponsive, Tustin claimed his head injuries were self-inflicted.
She claimed he had ‘banged his head while on the floor on all fours’.
Earlier in the trial, a medical expert said he believed Arthur was shaken and slammed with ‘very severe’ force.
Consultant neuropathologist Daniel Du Plessis said the chances of Arthur causing himself fatal head injuries were ‘inconceivable’.
The jury was previously told Arthur’s family raised concerns with social services two months before Arthur’s death.
But after a home visit no further action was taken.
Opening the trial, Mr Hankin told jurors: ‘Both defendants participated in a campaign of cruelty intended to cause Arthur significant harm and suffering.
‘Violence and intimidation, both physical and verbal, were routine. ‘Arthur’s visible injuries, his miserable physical condition and obvious despair provided each defendant with a daily reminder of the lengths to which the other would go to cause him harm.’
The trial continues.