A stepmother accused of cruelly abusing, poisoning and murdering a six-year-old boy has told a jury she blamed the child for problems in her increasingly troubled relationship with his father.
Emma Tustin denies murdering Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, who jurors previously heard looked “broken” just a few weeks after he moved into Tustin’s home with his father, Thomas Hughes, at the start of the March 2020 lockdown.
Tustin and Hughes are also accused of poisoning Arthur by forcing him to eat salt-laced meals and to endure months of “cruel” abuse, prosecutors have said.
Giving evidence in her defence for the first time on Tuesday, Tustin said she “did not” poison the youngster with salt, but “did” blame Arthur for what her barrister described as the “things going wrong” in her relationship with Hughes.
She claimed that a punishment regime backed by Hughes and herself was triggered by Arthur’s behaviour after it “worsened, daily” during lockdown.
Tustin said that led to what she herself agreed was an “unacceptable” state of affairs where the “poor child” spent most waking hours being punished on a “thinking step” in the couple’s hallway, “isolated” and alone.
But she also made multiple claims that Hughes physically abused his own son, “head-butting” Arthur, “smacking” and “ramming him” into the front door.
Tustin alleged that external pressures and Arthur’s behaviour left her unable to cope, accepting that her behaviour towards him left her “ashamed” and telling how she had “given up on Arthur” by the end of May 2020.
The youngster died after his head was “banged repeatedly against a hard surface”, leaving him with an “unsurvivable brain injury” on June 17, 2020.
It is alleged that “coercive” 32-year-old Tustin carried out the fatal assault at her home in Cranmore Road, Solihull, while in sole care of Arthur, before photographing her stepson as he lay dying in the hallway, using her mobile phone.
Though not present for the fatal assault, “bullying” Hughes, 29, of Stroud Road, Solihull, is alleged to have aided in the murder, and also faces three counts of child cruelty.
Tustin’s testimony has yet to reach her account of what happened to Arthur while she was alone with him in the house, with that evidence expected on Wednesday.
Taking to the witness box at Coventry Crown Court, telling jurors she was “a little bit nervous”, Tustin spoke of meeting Hughes through a dating site in 2019.
Tustin then met Arthur and came to “love” both Hughes and the child, telling the jury: “Arthur was a lovely boy.
“He loved me – we were friends, straight away.”
The jury has already heard how Arthur was in the care of his father after his natural mother, Olivia Labinjo, was convicted of a killing in February 2019.
After lockdown was announced, Hughes and Arthur moved into Tustin’s two-bed semi.
She claimed Arthur’s normally good behaviour changed on March 22, 2020 – Mother’s Day, alleging “Arthur started screaming, told me he was going to ruin Mother’s Day for me and I wasn’t his mum. It really upset me.”
In a text message to her mother, Tustin told how Arthur had “ruined” Mother’s Day and was “a nagging little shit”.
Asked by her barrister, Mary Prior QC, about her choice of words, Tustin replied: “I am disgusted in myself”.
Tustin said that by May 2020 she “couldn’t cope” with the atmosphere in the house between her, Hughes and Arthur.
She said: “Arthur, because of the way that he was behaving, obviously triggered Tom to get angry, so because of how Arthur was behaving, Tom was taking that out on me.”
Tustin was asked by Ms Prior: “In your mind, did you blame Arthur for things going wrong in your relationship with Tom?”
“I did, yes,” she replied.
She claimed that from the end of May 2020, Arthur spent most of his waking hours on the “thinking step” in the hallway of Cranmore Road.
She said: “He was mainly in the hallway for the majority of the time.
“Looking back now with the evidence there is, it was unacceptable and I can’t imagine how he was feeling,” she added.
“He just wanted attention. At this point I had given up on Arthur.
She said: “Looking back at how bad the situation was, the poor child was just angry and frustrated.
“He was on his own, he had nobody to speak to and when he was being spoken to it was abuse and there’s nothing I can say that makes it any better.”
She was asked about allegations of violence she had “seen Tom had done to Arthur”, replying: “It started in April… and then in May, it was horrendous.”
Asked what Arthur would be struck for, Tustin said “looking back now, not anything that could (justify) being smacked”.
In one incident, Hughes “was picking Arthur up off the floor and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, and he pinned him up the front door and he head-butted him”.
On another occasion, Tustin claimed she heard Arthur crying from the lounge and walked in to see “Arthur was on one knee, in front of Tom”.
“I said ‘what’s happened’ and he said ‘I’ve give him a dead-leg’ and I said ‘why’ and he said ‘because this kid don’t fucking learn, words don’t go through’,” she said.
In another claim, she said: “When he was on the thinking step, Tom grabbed him by the front of his clothes and he held Arthur up to his height and he rammed him up the front door, and the blind fell off.
“Arthur was saying ‘stop it, I won’t do it any more, I won’t do it any more’.”
When asked if Tustin had ever put salt in Arthur’s food or drink, she replied: “No, I did not”.
Jurors heard Tustin then claim Arthur had stopped eating, voluntarily, by the first week of June.
She said photos she sent to Hughes of Arthur’s food were only so the boy’s father knew how much his son was eating.
Tustin also claimed that on May 24, 2020 Arthur “whacked himself in the face and said ‘ow, you’ve just hit me’,” leading her to record a video of him, in an attempt to prove he was self-inflicting injuries.
Ms Prior asked Tustin about the “unpleasant names” she was calling Arthur in text messages sent to Hughes by mid-May, and she said: “The things I said in text messages, they were horrendous – I knew they were horrendous… they were vile.”
Describing Arthur in a text message as “Satan”, she told the court it was “disgusting on my behalf”.
In another message, she said Arthur was “malicious, cruel and just generally awful”, but told jurors “I’m ashamed of that message”.
Tustin, who has admitted one count of child cruelty but denies two other similar charges and murder, continues her evidence on Wednesday.