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A man accused of helping to murder his six-year-old son has told a jury he “probably” valued his new partner’s love and affection over the welfare of his child.
Thomas Hughes, who is alleged to have aided and abetted his girlfriend, Emma Tustin, in killing Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, told Coventry Crown Court on Monday that she had promised to show him “the love (and) the attention” he wanted.
Prosecutors accused him of being an “utterly ruthless, unthinking and pitiless” parent, but he denied that, along with a further claim that he “relished in abusing” his child.
Hughes later claimed, from the witness box, that Tustin had “mentally abused” him into complying with a punishing disciplinary regime, including forcing Arthur to stand for up to 14 hours a day, have food and drink withheld, and suffer “multiple acts of violence”.
He later died of an inflicted brain injury.
Hughes’ claim about Tustin’s alleged psychological abuse prompted prosecuting barrister Jonas Hankin QC to ask him: “Who is the victim here, Mr Hughes, Arthur or you?”
“Arthur,” replied 29-year-old Hughes.
Arthur, who, jurors were told, was left a frail and weakened shadow of his normal “happy, chubby, healthy, active” self in the days before his fatal collapse, later died from a head injury, while in the sole care of Tustin.
The 32-year-old is accused of fatally shaking and hitting Arthur, leaving him with an “unsurvivable” brain injury, while the boy and his father were staying at her home during the first Covid lockdown.
Tustin and Hughes deny murdering Arthur, who, jurors previously heard, looked “broken” just a few weeks after he moved into Tustin’s home in Cranmore Road, Solihull, West Midlands.
They are both also accused of poisoning Arthur by forcing him to eat salt-laced meals, isolating him within the home, and of inflicting months of abuse likened to “torture” by prosecutors.
Tustin has previously claimed that 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.
Under cross-examination, Hughes was asked his about his claims that Tustin had “manipulated” him into going along with the punishment regime.
Mr Hankin asked him: “Why did you not intervene to protect him?”
Hughes replied: “When I went to – I was led to believe it wasn’t as bad as what I was thinking it was,”, and then claimed he faced “difficulties” in getting his own way with Tustin.
The Crown’s QC asked him: “Can you not hear what you’re saying? As his father… you’re talking about your child, your six-year-old, vulnerable child, who is being subjected to forced stress positions, day after day.
“What difficulties in the world could be more important than saving your child from that fate?”
Hughes replied: “Nothing, looking back on it, but at the time I was being mentally abused by Emma Tustin.”
He was later asked: “What could Emma Tustin do to you that’s worse than what you were doing to him?”
Hughes replied: “Nothing – I just felt it would cause unnecessary arguments (with Tustin).”
Mr Hankin asked: “What did Emma Tustin offer you that you valued more than your own son, Mr Hughes?”
He replied: “She always assured me… she would show me the love, the attention.”
The prosecutor asked: “So, it was her love and attention you valued more than your own son’s welfare?”
Hughes replied: “Towards the end, probably.”
Later, Hughes said his son “meant the absolute world” to him.
Mr Hankin asked: “Can you tell us how this little boy, who meant the absolute world to you, yet you watched him decline from a happy, chubby, healthy, active boy, to a desperately sad, thin, weak, miserable child?”
Hughes replied: “I cannot explain it to you.”
Though not present for the alleged fatal assault, Hughes, of Stroud Road, Solihull, is accused of aiding the killing, and also faces three counts of child cruelty.
Tustin has admitted one count of child cruelty but denies two other similar charges.
After lunch on Monday, jurors were told Tustin needed treatment for a health issue which required her needing an ambulance to take her to hospital.
Mr Justice Wall QC said: “I am afraid we cannot continue in her absence – she is entitled to be present at her own trial.”
The case was not due to sit on Tuesday in any case and the hearing was adjourned until Wednesday, when defence evidence continues.