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Woman isolated stepson, six, up to 14 hours a day but claims he died ‘after falling down the stairs’

A woman accused of murdering her six-year-old stepson in a brutal ‘campaign of cruelty’ which included isolating him in a hallway every day for a month and a half has claimed the youngster died after falling down the stairs. 

Emma Tustin, 32, admitted segregating Arthur Labinjo-Hughes for up to 14 hours a day for seven days a week in a hallway in their home in Solihull, West Midlands.

Tustin and her partner Thomas Hughes, 29, allegedly subjected the boy to ‘systematic, cruel behaviour’ before he suffered fatal head injuries in June last year, Coventry Crown Court heard. 

Tustin claimed that Arthur died after falling down the stairs and said the boy had headbutted the floor in the hallway ‘three of four times’ before she heard a loud ‘bang’ and found him on the floor. 

Arthur was allegedly poisoned with salt, ordered to sleep on the floor and ‘deprived of basic living comforts’ in cruel behaviour that met the ‘medical definition of child torture’, according to prosecutors.

Hughes, who is Arthur’s father, and Tustin deny murder. Tustin has admitted one count of child cruelty but denies three other counts. Hughes denies four counts of child cruelty.

Giving evidence, the mother-of-four claimed she saw Arthur headbutting the floor in the hallway ‘three or four’ times before he sustained un-survivable head injuries.

Tustin said she tried to move him ‘so he didn’t hurt himself’ before she heard a ‘loud bang’ and found him prone on the floor.

Emma Tustin (pictured), 32, admitted segregating Arthur Labinjo-Hughes for up to 14 hours a day for seven days a week in a hallway in their home near Solihull, West Midlands

She told jurors: ‘I wasn’t actually in the hallway when I heard it, I was in the living room but I didn’t see it. I just heard a bang. It was a loud bang and it was a crack at the same time.’

Asked by her barrister Mary Prior, QC, if she hit Arthur, shook him or banged his head against a surface, Tustin replied: ‘No, I did not.’

She added: ‘I genuinely thought he had knocked himself unconscious and that’s why I called his dad first and not the paramedics. I thought he had knocked himself out and would come around.’

The jury was told that a 999 call was made more than 12 minutes after Arthur was found unresponsive.

In the phone call, Tustin claimed Arthur’s head injuries were self-inflicted, saying he had ‘banged his head while on the floor on all fours’. 

Questioned over the delay, Tustin said she called for an ambulance despite Hughes telling her not to.

She said: ‘So I know now how long it was, but at the time I didn’t know how long it had been.

‘I knew it wasn’t right that Arthur hadn’t come around yet and he was getting worse.

‘His breathing was more like deep breaths, it wasn’t normal breathing. It was at that point I picked up my phone and called the ambulance.

‘Tom had told me not to call the ambulance and I remember shouting at him. I don’t know what I said. I picked up my phone and I called the ambulance anyway.’

Tustin sobbed as she apologised for the cruelty she admits inflicting on Arthur, but she denied killing him or wanting him ‘out of the way’.

She said: ‘I feel disgusted, I feel ashamed of myself. As bad as things were, and they were bad, he didn’t deserve that.

‘He didn’t deserve to be isolated or to be treated the way he was. I can only say how sorry I am, I can’t speak for Tom.

‘But I’m sorry for what I’ve done. It’s just not acceptable what I did and I’ve got to live with that, and that is something I will have to deal with.’

Asked by Mrs Prior to tell the jury ‘what went wrong’ with Arthur, Tustin said: ‘He was on his own. He was just left alone. But the main point is he missed going to school, he missed seeing his friend and he had no home comforts like we all have.

‘He didn’t have any of those things and I think it got a bit much.’

Tustin has also admitted cruelty by confining Arthur to the hallway for up to 14 hours a day for seven days a week over the course of six weeks.

Tustin said the six-year-old boy would have to stand by the front door or sit on a step ‘from the minute he woke up to the moment he went to bed’.

She told jurors that the cruelty got worse through May and became ‘consistent’ and ‘constant’.

Tustin added: ‘It wasn’t my rules but I followed those rules. I can’t give a reason as to why I allowed that to happen in my home but I did allow it to happen in my home, and I did follow those rules.

‘I think it’s absolutely disgusting. As a parent myself, I should know better but I didn’t know how to deal with that situation whatsoever. 

Tustin and her partner Thomas Hughes (pictured), 29, allegedly subjected Arthur to 'systematic, cruel behaviour' which met the 'definition of child torture', prosecutors said

Tustin and her partner Thomas Hughes (pictured), 29, allegedly subjected Arthur to ‘systematic, cruel behaviour’ which met the ‘definition of child torture’, prosecutors said

‘But I did follow the rules and he was made to stand there by me as well, so I do accept that.’

Arthur had been in the full-time care of his father Hughes after his mother Olivia Labinjo-Halcrow was accused of killing her new partner Gary Cunningham in February 2019.

Hughes had met Tustin met online and he moved into her home with Arthur when the country entered the first national Covid-19 lockdown last March.

The pair are said to have subjected Arthur to ‘violence and intimidation’ in ‘brutal controlling circumstances’. 

Arthur collapsed with ‘un-survivable brain injuries’ in June 2020 while in Tustin’s care following the alleged ‘campaign of cruelty’.

Asked to explain what cruelty she accepted being responsible for, Tustin said: ‘Making him stand by the door or sitting on the step, and on the occasion when I clipped Arthur round the side of the ear, and [when I] made him eat his lunch outside in the hallway away from the family.

‘Those things were cruel and I did do those things.’

Speaking about the day that Arthur sustained fatal injuries, Tustin alleged the boy headbutted her just minutes earlier despite also telling the court that he had ‘literally got no strength in him’.

But it has been alleged that Tustin fatally assaulted Arthur at around 2.30pm on June 16, while Hughes was at the supermarket, the court heard. 

Jurors were shown a photo she took on her mobile phone which showed Arthur dressed in Marvel Avengers pyjamas, looking straight at the camera and sitting with his legs in front of him, with his back up against the front door, visibly crying.

Giving evidence on Wednesday, Tustin gave her account of what happened to Arthur as she was taken through video clips from an internal CCTV camera set up in the lounge at Cranmore Road.

The clips showed Tustin repeatedly getting up off the sofa and heading out of shot to the hallway where Arthur was.

She told jurors she found Arthur collapsed ‘face down’ in the hallway after hearing a ‘really loud bang’ like ‘you fell down the stairs’.

Tustin said: ‘I didn’t see it so I didn’t know what it was. I just heard a really loud bang and a crack.

‘Arthur was face down on the floor on the carpet. He was lying as if he was lying on his stomach.

Giving evidence, the mother-of-four admitted cruelty by confining Arthur to the hallway for up to 14 hours a day for seven days a week over the course of a month and a half

Giving evidence, the mother-of-four admitted cruelty by confining Arthur to the hallway for up to 14 hours a day for seven days a week over the course of a month and a half

‘I can’t remember how his arms were but his legs were straight and he was straight. I picked him up. I struggled to pick him up. 

‘I put my arms underneath his armpit and I put him on the stairs and I noticed that he had a big lump on his head. It was really big, it was swollen.

‘I picked him up and I put him on the step and I thought he knocked himself out. I checked he had a pulse, and he did, and he was breathing. 

‘His eyes started rolling. I didn’t know what to do. I was running in and out, I didn’t know where to put him. I thought he had knocked himself out and he would come around.’ 

Tustin also claimed footage recorded prior to the ‘bang’, where she could be seen rubbing the middle of her forehead, was because Arthur had head-butted her.

She said: ‘He threw his head forward and… that’s where he got me, it was quite sore.’

Tustin’s central claim that Arthur self-inflicted his fatal injuries in the incident on June 16 came after she alleged he had been ‘throwing himself’ against doors, walls and floors in previous weeks.

However, jurors watched a video of Arthur ‘struggling to pick up his duvet’, recorded at 7.06am the day before he was fatally injured.

In the footage, Tustin comes into the lounge and could be seen pulling an Avengers duvet cover off Arthur – who had to sleep in the lounge – without ceremony.

Arthur can be seen climbing slowly to his feet, crying.

Asked why she had woken Arthur that way, Tustin replied: ‘I just thought he was being naughty and wouldn’t pick his blanket up, but looking at that footage you can see he’s not being naughty and he is genuinely struggling to pick up his duvet and pillow.

‘He’s stood up, and you can see he’s crying – I’d gone back upstairs.’

Asked what she now thought of her actions, she replied: ‘They were absolutely disgusting, they were unacceptable.’

Ms Prior then asked: ‘Did you ever hit Arthur?’

She replied: ‘No, I clipped him round the ear, but I’ve never physically hit Arthur, no.’

Hughes, who is Arthur's father, and Tustin deny murder and multiple counts of child cruelty. Tustin has admitted one count of child cruelty. Pictured: Tributes left for Arthur in Solihull

Hughes, who is Arthur’s father, and Tustin deny murder and multiple counts of child cruelty. Tustin has admitted one count of child cruelty. Pictured: Tributes left for Arthur in Solihull

Tustin previously told the court that she was in fear of Hughes, who ‘constantly’ smacked Arthur and she also claimed 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.

Tustin, who the court heard has four children to three men, said: ‘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.’  

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.

‘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.’  

Tustin apologised over text messages she sent to Hughes where she called Arthur ‘Satan’ and a ‘nagging little s***’, the court heard.

She told the jury: ‘I would tell him to shut up and call him a f***** liar. But things I said in text messages, they were vile.’

In one message, Hughes threatened to ‘take his jaw off his shoulders’, telling 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. 

It is claimed Arthur was poisoned with salt and 'deprived of basic living comforts' before suffering fatal head injuries at Tustin's house in Solihull, West Midlands, in June last year

It is claimed Arthur was poisoned with salt and ‘deprived of basic living comforts’ before suffering fatal head injuries at Tustin’s house in Solihull, West Midlands, in June last year

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.

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.’

One witness claimed Arthur was ‘too weak’ to even hold a glass of water to his mouth on the day before he collapsed, the trial heard.

Tustin denied abusing Arthur but admitted ‘giving up’ on him.  

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, Jonas Hankin QC, prosecuting, 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. 


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