A “bullying” father and stepmother “poisoned” his six-year-old son with salt and exposed him to months of “cruel” abuse before murdering the youngster as his head was “banged repeatedly against a hard surface”, a court has heard.
Thomas Hughes and his girlfriend Emma Tustin are jointly accused of murder after leaving Arthur Labinjo-Hughes with an “unsurvivable brain injury” on June 17 2020.
It is alleged Tustin carried out the fatal assault while in sole care of Arthur, and fetched her mobile phone immediately afterwards to take a photograph of the youngster as he lay dying in the hallway.
Prosecutors said that despite having her phone she took 12 minutes to call 999, telling medics Arthur “fell and banged his head and while on the floor banged his head another five times”.
Jonas Hankin QC, for the prosecution, told jurors: “You’ll note her account including the suggestion Arthur had headbutted her during the incident, and you will also have noted she felt it necessary to say Arthur had treated them like shit, in that context, in those circumstances.”
Hughes, 29, and Tustin, 32, are also accused of multiple counts of child cruelty, after forcing Arthur to endure “systematic, cruel behaviour” of “physical and psychological” abuse in the weeks before his death.
One witness said the previously happy and healthy boy looked “as though he were broken” on the day of his death.
The same witness said that when Arthur “secretly” asked him for a drink of water, while Hughes and Tustin were out of the room, “he had to hold (the glass) to Arthur’s mouth” because the child was “too weak to hold it himself”.
Opening the case on Thursday, Mr Hankin 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”.
Arthur was “segregated and isolated” for “up to 14 hours a day”, often made to stay on the step next to the hallway by the front door, and prevented from having food and drink.
Mr Hankin said: “The evidence you will hear, the prosecution say, indicates Arthur was physically and verbally abused, isolated, access to food and drink were controlled or restricted, he was deprived of basic living comforts; a bed, clothing.
“And he suffered psychological maltreatment – bullying, in ordinary language.”
Mr Hankin told the jury at Coventry Crown Court that “Arthur was made to sleep on the living room floor” at Tustin’s home in Cranmore Road, Solihull, and that, after his death, “a duvet was found in a cupboard under the stairs”.
He added: “It is striking, the prosecution say, that there is no clear evidence of the presence of Arthur living in that house.”
Medical evidence revealed the youngster died from a “head trauma inflicted on him by an adult, the most likely mechanism being that he had been vigorously shaken and his head banged repeatedly against a hard surface”.
Notes from hospital doctors who treated him after his collapse at the two-bed house Tustin shared with Hughes also revealed he had been “poisoned with salt” and had suffered extensive bruising over his frail body.
Jurors were shown photographs of Arthur in the house as he was “compelled” into “forcibly standing in isolation and he would be punished for unauthorised movements, including attempts to sit down”.
Tustin took pictures and recorded audio clips and videos of Arthur being punished, sending them to Hughes.
In one example the boy was shown standing by the fridge as punishment, and numerous audio clips were played of him “crying and wailing” for long periods.
Hughes also “pressure-pointed” Arthur as punishment, jurors were told.
Tustin and Hughes exchanged messages referring to Arthur in derogatory terms, and there were “many examples of threats of violence”.
On May 6 2020, Hughes texted Tustin, telling her: “Tell him not to move a muscle – put him by the fridge, put him outside or wherever, give him away.
“Put him out with the rubbish.”
The prosecutor said Tustin recorded more than 200 audio files of Arthur in “various stages of distress”.
In some of the recordings he was heard begging for help from his “nanny” and paternal uncles.
In one, he said, “Please help me, help me uncle, they’re not feeding me, I need some food and a drink”.
On other occasions, Hughes messaged Tustin telling her, “Just end him” and “I’ll fill him in when I get back”.
In June last year, Hughes told a neighbour: “If you hear anyone saying ‘don’t kill me’, ignore it, I’m not hurting him.”
Days later, Arthur was dead.
Mr Hankin said emergency services were called to the home to reports that Arthur had “sustained a self-inflicted head injury at his stepmother’s home address”, with paramedics noting a “large bruise” on his forehead.
He suffered a cardiac arrest, but medics got his heart beating and rushed him to Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
Examinations showed Arthur had “extensive bruising over all parts of his body”, and a CT scan showed bleeding on the brain and “damage within the brain itself, which was due to a shortage of oxygen and blood supply”.
Mr Hankin said: “Abnormal biochemical results raised concerns that Arthur had also been poisoned – with salt.”
His head injuries were unsurvivable and Arthur died shortly before 1am on June 17, three months after his father had moved into Tustin’s home, jurors heard.
Before the move, the youngster was “cherished by all” and lived a “stable” life with his father, surrounded by Hughes’ extended family, in an annexe in the back yard of Arthur’s paternal grandparents.
The jury was also told that Arthur had been in the sole care of his father after his natural mother, Olivia Labinjo, was convicted of a killing in February 2019.
In April 2020, it emerged children’s social services and police were alerted by his paternal grandmother to concerns about Arthur’s care.
Extended family had seen bruises on Arthur’s back, and he said Tustin had “called him an ugly, horrible brat” and shoved him headfirst into the stairs.
After children’s services saw Arthur on April 17, “no concerns were raised”, and while photos of the bruises were sent to the police, no further action was taken, Mr Hankin told the jury.
On the first day of the trial, Tustin admitted child cruelty by ill-treating Arthur on multiple occasions by “forcing him to stand, isolating him within the family home, and physically or verbally intimidating him”.
Hughes denies a similar charge.
Hughes and Tustin also face an allegation of child cruelty by administering salt to Arthur between June 1 and 17 last year.
Both are also accused of two counts of child cruelty by assault on multiple occasions and also by withholding food and/or drink.
Hughes, of Stroud Road, and Tustin, of Cranmore Road, deny the charges and the trial continues.