A “wicked” stepmother and a “pitiless” father have been convicted of killing his six-year-old son after subjecting the defenceless boy to a campaign of “evil” abuse.
Emma Tustin, 32, was unanimously convicted at Coventry Crown Court on Thursday of murdering Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.
Her partner and Arthur’s father, 29-year-old Thomas Hughes, was found guilty of manslaughter, after his son suffered an “unsurvivable brain injury” on June 16 2020.
Jurors, who took six hours and 15 minutes to deliver their unanimous verdicts, afterwards held a minute’s silence in Arthur’s memory.
In court, the pair had been described by prosecutors as “utterly ruthless, unthinking and pitiless”.
Speaking after the verdicts, Arthur’s maternal grandmother, Madeleine Halcrow, called them “wicked” and “evil”.
She also described the couple’s behaviour, which included Tustin poisoning the youngster by force-feeding him salt-laced meals, as “unfathomable”.
“I think they are cold, calculating, systematic torturers of a defenceless little boy.
“They’re wicked, evil.
“There’s no word for them, especially your own child,” said the grandmother.
An independent serious case review is now under way into the actions of Solihull Council social workers who found “no safeguarding concerns” after visiting Arthur, just two months before he was murdered.
The NSPCC said the pair’s 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”.
Tustin carried out the fatal assault while in sole care of Arthur at her home in Cranmore Road, Solihull, violently shaking him and repeatedly banging his head, likely against the hallway wall.
She then callously took a photograph of the unconscious youngster on her mobile phone, while he lay dying in her hall, then sending the image to Hughes.
Tustin then took 12 minutes to call 999, instead first ringing Hughes, before lying to medics and later police that Arthur “fell and banged his head and while on the floor banged his head another five times”.
She then claimed at trial he must have thrown himself down the stairs, despite evidence he was so starved he was barely able to pick up his own bedding, or stand.
The attack happened the day before “coercive” and “controlling” Tustin’s birthday.
Hughes, of Stroud Road, Solihull, was convicted of manslaughter after encouraging the killing by his actions, including sending a text message to Tustin 18 hours before the fatal assault telling her “just end him”.
On one occasion before his death, Arthur had told his father: “I am in danger with you, dad.”
The pair “de-humanised” Arthur, prosecutors said, with Tustin convicted of two counts of child cruelty by forcing him to eat salt-laced meals and starving the child, while also depriving him of water with Hughes cleared of those offences.
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”.
Tustin admitted two other counts of child cruelty, by wilfully assaulting the boy and isolating him in the home by making him stand up to 14 hours a day in the hallway with jurors convicting Hughes on both those counts.
The “chubby, happy” and “always smiley” boy, was left a weakened and frail shadow of himself, with one witness describing how he looked “broken” just before his death.
Tests later revealed Arthur had also been “poisoned with salt” in the hours before his collapse.
Detective Inspector Laura Harrison, the West Midlands Police officer who led the investigation, said the couple’s behaviour was “horrific”, “evil”, and unfathomable.
She added: “It’s the worst case I have had to investigate.”
Tustin, pregnant at the time with Hughes’ unborn child, would also video, photograph and record audio of Arthur while he was being tormented, with Hughes “relishing” inflicting further punishment on his son for minor infractions like failing to stand up for hours on end.
So weakened was Arthur by his ordeal, he was seen on the morning of his collapse struggling to lift his own Marvel Avengers blanket off the floor of the lounge where he was forced to sleep, without a mattress.
And footage of his morning routine showed how Arthur was beaten, manhandled and punished from the moment he was woken, at around 7am, each day, after he and his father moved in with Tustin at the start of the first national lockdown.
Hughes would also “pressure-point” Arthur for up to 15 seconds at a time, removed his son’s favourite teddy bear and cut up his prized Birmingham City FC football shirts in front of him.
But Hughes claimed he had been “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.
Tustin, who had accepted some elements of the cruelty, told jurors she was “disgusted and ashamed” by that behaviour but continued to deny the full extent of her offending.
It emerged in court that after being charged, Tustin aborted the couple’s unborn child at 21 weeks without telling Hughes, while on remand in prison.
Ms Harrison, who said Tustin had shown no remorse, said: “I think Emma Tustin wanted a family unit and that didn’t include Arthur for some reason.”
The discipline started soon after the couple sparked up a “volatile and dysfunctional” relationship from August 2019.
It followed a period of traumatic upheaval for Arthur, whose natural mother Olivia Labinjo-Halcrow was jailed for killing her then partner in 2019, leaving Hughes in sole custody of their son.
Later Hughes would say it was a case of “discipline gone too far”, telling detectives “the last few weeks, I did turn into a monster”.
Tustin’s cruelty was also laid bare, as she recorded more than 200 audio files of Arthur, wailing and crying “no-one loves me” and “no-one’s gonna feed me”.
She would then send the recordings, including videos, to Hughes, encouraging him to punish and beat his son, as she was heard on at least one recording saying “You’re in trouble when your dad gets back”.
The abuse was stepped up towards the end of his life with Arthur poisoned with salt by Tustin, who made most of his meals though she pointed the blame at Hughes.
A medical expert who assessed sodium results in the little boy’s blood on his admission to hospital, found 34mg, a level so high it was off the “normal scale”.
Hughes’ mother, Joanne Hughes, had seen bruises on Arthur’s back, with the boy telling how Tustin “called him an ugly, horrible brat” and shoved him into the stairs.
She alerted children’s social services to the bruises in April, just weeks before his death.
But two social workers who saw Arthur at Cranmore Road, had “no safeguarding concerns”.
Solihull’s Local Child Safeguarding Partnership is now carrying out an independent review of the circumstances surrounding the “terrible tragedy”, including the actions of Solihull Council’s social services.
A council spokesperson said “it would be inappropriate for the council to comment ahead of the findings of that review”.
Peter Grice of the Crown Prosecution Service said the case evidence was “shocking”, adding “little Arthur’s case greatly disturbed me and is something I will never forget”.
An NSPCC spokesman said “The cruelty of Hughes and Tustin and the pain and suffering they inflicted on Arthur before they killed him almost defies belief.”
Tustin and Hughes will be sentenced on Friday.