Insight

'Cherished by all' to 'target of derision' - Arthur Labinjo-Hughes' story

A pitifully weak Arthur struggles to lift his duvet

Warning: This article contains images of child abuse that readers may find distressing

The conviction of Emma Tustin for murder and Thomas Hughes for manslaughter were the final acts in a tragedy that had been unfolding in the life of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes since at least 2019.

A mother in jail for manslaughter, a killer father and a "wicked stepmother" - many are now asking what chance he ever had. 

But this interpretation ignores the loving wider family who have been crushed by these events: the grandmothers and uncles who tried to alert the authorities and who have sat through weeks of the most horrifying testimony to see justice done for the little boy. 

Haunting CCTV of him waking up on the final day of his life - two heartbreaking minutes of it - encapsulates the horror of what was done to the six-year-old.


Footage seen in court shows Arthur appearing to struggle to lift up a duvet

This video contains distressing images

Struggling to stand and to lift his duvet the effects of the mistreatment he suffered are obvious. 

A host of medical experts stood before the jury over the course of the nine-week trial to outline the scale and the scope of the abuse. 

Arthur’s left kidney had shrunk and so had his thymus gland - a small organ in the chest that forms part of the immune system.

Dr Roger Malcolmson, a consultant pathologist, said this shrinkage was likely caused by "severe and or prolonged physical stress", the effect of "repeated and sustained abuse".

Arthur’s body was a patchwork of bruises. He was dehydrated. His ribs were protruding and his eyes were sunken.

The act that killed him was a period of violent shaking combined with impacts - as though his head had been struck against something hard. There was bleeding on his brain and his retinas were detached. 

Arthur's body was a patchwork of bruises, the court was told Credit: Family handout

Dr Sarah Dixon, a consultant paediatrician who wrote a report about Arthur’s lived experience, was asked how great a force would be needed to cause the head injuries he had sustained. 

She said: "It would be akin to the kind of force generated with high-speed road traffic collisions or a fall from height from a first or second floor window onto an unyielding surface, something like concrete."

Yet for six-and-a-quarter of his six-and-a-half years, this child apparently lived a normal life.

His parents, though separated, were both involved in his care along with a host of grandparents and uncles with whom he had regular contact. 

He was, as a prosecutor told this murder trial, "cherished by all".

An avid Birmingham City fan, he loved football, cricket and playing outside. He loved DC and Marvel Superheroes and Julia Donaldson books and he enjoyed school. 

Arthur loved DC and Marvel superheroes Credit: Handout

But, in February 2019, his mother Olivia Labinjo-Halcrow stabbed her new partner, Gary Cunningham, to death during a drug-fuelled argument. That event was to prove fatal for Arthur, too. 

He went to live full time with his father Thomas Hughes and at first all was well. They stayed together in an annex in his grandparents' garden. 

His brother Andrew told the jury Olivia's conviction strengthened the relationship between Arthur and his dad. "It was them against the world," he said. 

Then Thomas met Emma Tustin, who had two children of her own. In March 2020, came the lockdown, and Arthur’s life unravelled - fast.

Jonas Hankin QC told the jury: "He became a target for derision, abuse, and systematic cruelty."

More than one witness reported that Thomas’s move to Emma Tustin’s house was an accidental side effect of the pandemic. He and Arthur were there on the day the Prime Minister announced the lockdown and so there they stayed. 

The killers have each sought to blame the other for what happened over the next three months - she portraying him as a violent bully with a short temper whose disciplinary regime spiralled out of control; he portraying her as a manipulative femme fatale who lead him astray.

In finding them both guilty of killing Arthur, the jury have disregarded their excuses. 

Thomas Hughes (left), Arthur Labinjo-Hughes (centre) and Emma Tustin (right)

What was never really in doubt was that Arthur was routinely beaten and made to stand alone in the hallway of the home in Solihull, away from the rest of the family, for longer and longer periods - on one occasion for 14 hours. 

He was isolated from his extended family, with lockdown used as an excuse. His food and water supply were restricted and, it now seems likely, often laced with excessive amounts of salt. 

Both defendants referred to Arthur with four letter expletives and in other disparaging language, both in texts to each other and in front of witnesses. 

When he objected to his treatment his distress was recorded instead of soothed. More than two hundred such recordings were found by investigators.

Emma Tustin (left) and her partner Thomas Hughes have been found guilty of killing Arthur Labinjo-Hughes Credit: West Midlands Police

Dr Sarah Dixon said: "Many of the clips are of a little boy sobbing, many crying to himself.

"There is a sense of desolation and desperation. They give the impression of a forlorn little boy in tears. He seems heartbroken.

"In some of the clips he appears to be pleading. It is an extensive catalogue of Arthur's wishes and feelings, they evidenced he very clearly and repeatedly articulated his hunger, his thirst, discomfort and sadness."

Investigators were never in any doubt that Tustin and Hughes were in it together. With the verdicts in Detective Inspector Laura Harrison of West Midlands Police was willing to speculate as to motive.

She said: "I think Emma Tustin wanted to create a family unit in her home which wasn't to include Arthur. That's my personal opinion. But there is no excuse and there is no explanation as to why anybody would be able to treat anybody or anything in the way that they did."

Arthur’s maternal grandmother Madeleine Halcrow said the whole family loved Arthur "to bits" but that all contact with the boy had been severed after Hughes moved in with Tustin.

"We never saw him again,".

Speaking of Tustin and Hughes, she said: "I think they are cold, calculating, systematic torturers of a defenceless little boy."

"They're wicked. Evil. There's no word for them."

As she fought back tears outside Coventry Crown Court she read a statement on behalf of her daughter, who is still in prison:

As chilling as the violence was the constant suggestion of violence ever hanging over this six-year-old boy, who knew from painful experience these were no idle threats.

On the day before he died his father shouted that he would put him “six feet under” and exhorted Tustin in a text message to “just end him.” 

Eighteen hours later, that’s exactly what she did.