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A stepmother accused of murdering a six-year-old boy has pleaded guilty part-way through her trial to cruelly beating the child in the days before he suffered a fatal head injury.
Emma Tustin, who is also accused of killing her stepson, Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, changed her plea to the count of child cruelty on Monday at the end of defence evidence.
Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes, 29, and Tustin, his partner, are both currently on trial jointly accused of murder, after the boy suffered an “unsurvivable brain injury” on June 17 2020.
It is alleged that 32-year-old Tustin carried out the fatal assault while having 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 of her home in Cranmore Road, Solihull, West Midlands.
Hughes is accused of aiding and abetting in the murder, including by sending a text message to Tustin before his son’s fatal collapse telling her “kid’s getting ended when I get back”.
Prosecutors have alleged the pair carried out a “campaign of cruelty”, amounting to “torture”, against Arthur, in which he was force-fed salt-laced meals, kept isolated in the home, starved, dehydrated and routinely beaten.
Tustin’s barrister, Mary Prior QC, told jurors at Coventry Crown Court that her client had admitted in her own evidence to “three assaults… all captured on CCTV, occurring between June 12 and 16 2020”, leading to her change of plea.
Tustin claimed Arthur’s fatal head injury was self-inflicted, possibly by throwing himself down the staircase in her hallway, where he was forced to spend “12 to 14 hours” a day, as part of the couple’s behavioural regime.
During his evidence, Hughes claimed Tustin “mentally abused” and “gaslighted” him into complying with the punishing disciplinary regime, but also admitted lying to school staff who were checking on Arthur’s progress during the first Covid lockdown.
Earlier on Monday, the jury heard the last of the evidence in Hughes’ defence, from a woman who shared a cell with Tustin while she was awaiting trial for Arthur’s murder.
Elaine Pritchard was Tustin’s “padmate” at HMP Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire in November last year.
She said she trashed the cell and ordered Tustin out after reading that Arthur had suffered about 130 separate injuries.
Ms Pritchard, 48, told jurors she has an extensive record of offending linked to drug and alcohol abuse, including assaults and drink-driving.
In May 2007, she had also admitted two counts of neglecting her children, who were removed from her care in 2007, as she told the jury the drugs had “taken over everything” in her life at the time.
Ms Pritchard was asked about an argument she had while sharing a cell with Tustin in November 2021, which ended with her calling the prison’s guards to have her cellmate removed.
In evidence, she said she had spotted Tustin’s case paperwork lying on a side table.
She said: “I saw a comment from the paramedics, and 137 bruises. On his body. And that she showed no emotion.”
Bernard Richmond QC, representing Hughes, asked: “How did she know that you had seen that?”
Ms Pritchard replied: “Because I ended up throwing her out of the cell.”
She added: “I asked her, why wouldn’t she know that a boy had all those injuries?
“I asked her about when she had bathed him or showered him.
“She said ‘Oh, I didn’t do that, I just used to give him a towel’.
“I was quite angry at the fact someone had 137 bruises on their body.”
Asked what Tustin did when Ms Pritchard got angry, she claimed: “She was sat on her bed or on the chair, with her knees up, and I just started throwing her stuff into the corner of the room, saying ‘You’re getting out, you’re going’.
“I pressed the alarm bell for the staff, I feared I would end up staying in the prison.”
Ms Pritchard then alleged: “She said to me ‘You had your kids taken off you’ and I said ‘Yeah, I did, but you’re not going to get your kids back, you’ve murdered a little boy, you’ve killed a boy’.
“She wasn’t interested; the only thing she spoke about was her own children, she never spoke about Arthur.”
Ms Pritchard was also asked about an alleged remark Tustin made to her, describing Arthur as a “little f*****”, when she had “stopped him” leaving the house to go after his father.
However, Ms Pritchard was unable to tell jurors if the words allegedly used by Tustin had been about an incident on the day of Arthur’s fatal collapse.
Tustin previously pleaded guilty on the first day of the trial to another count of child cruelty – 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, as well as a further child cruelty allegation of “wilfully assaulting Arthur on multiple occasions”.
The pair also both deny allegations of child cruelty by administering salt to Arthur between June 1 and 17 last year, and by withholding food and drink.
Hughes, of Stroud Road, and Tustin, of Cranmore Road, also both deny murder and the trial continues with the judge now giving the jury legal directions.