Warning: Readers may find the details in this article upsetting
A 10-month-old baby was made to eat his own vomit and was "assaulted on a regular basis" by his mother and stepfather who went on to murder him, a trial has heard.
Gemma Barton and Craig Crouch "encouraged and applauded each other" as they “worked together” to cause Jacob Crouch’s “suffering and death” with the youngster sustaining at least 39 rib fractures in a minimum of four separate assaults, a prosecutor told the jury at Derby Crown Court.
Mary Prior KC said Jacob endured a "culture of cruelty" and died from a "vicious assault" which saw him "kicked or stamped on with such severe force that it fractured a rib and caused a tear in his stomach and bowel".
He later contracted peritonitis – an infection of the lining of the abdominal organs – and died "in his cot, alone" on December 30 2020 at his home in Foxley Chase, Linton, near Swadlincote in Derbyshire, with 19 visible bruises at the time of death.
'Parents encouraged and applauded each other in their punishments'
Mrs Prior said: “Our case is that these two parents created an environment in which they encouraged and applauded each other in their control and punishments of this little baby.
“Neither of them, in this very small house where no one could be alone, could have committed these offences without the knowledge and assistance of the other.
“Neither sought medical help for Jacob at any stage for the pain and suffering caused when his bones were broken or in the few days that followed.”
She added: “Neither saw anything, heard anything or said anything in a very small house where both of them played a full part in the care of this baby.
“Neither got Jacob out of what must have been a life with episodes of significant pain and suffering.
“Jacob was not given the care that as a baby he needed and deserved.”
As well as the visible bruises on his face and chest, Mrs Prior said that there were 15 “separate incidents of bruising” and post-mortem examinations found multiple internal bruises and bleeds, including evidence of “severe and significant blunt force trauma” to his abdomen – an injury akin to those caused by high-speed traffic collisions.
Barton began to sob in the dock and some relatives in the public gallery had to leave the court in tears while the Crown opened its case.
Barton, 32, met Crouch, 39, while four months pregnant with Jacob, with the pair becoming “very close, very quickly” and Crouch calling Jacob “our little boy” only a month after first contacting Barton.
Jacob was born healthy on February 17 2020, with Crouch named as his father on the birth certificate, but Mrs Prior said that he was “assaulted causing bruising on a regular basis for at least six months” from the age of just four months, and was referred to as “the devil” in one text message.
On June 2, Barton texted Crouch to say “If only you could talk to Jacob and tell him to stop his bloody moaning …”, and in the same month, Crouch asked Barton whether she had “put back what Jacob threw back down him” – referring to vomit – with Barton confirming she had.
'If he starts crying for no reason then smack his hand' - text messages
The jury saw images of bruising to Jacob’s chest, sustained as early as July 2020, which were “consistent with forceful compression of the ribs”, Mrs Prior said.
In September, Crouch said in texts that Jacob was “pushing us to our limits” and that he was “starting to get really pissed off with him”.
After Barton also sent texts calling her son a “little shit”, Crouch responded saying: “You need to be more regimental with him. If he starts to cry because he has hurt himself then that’s fine, comfort him. If he starts crying for no reason then smack his hand and straight to bed until settled.
“You need to be harder on him with this and not let this take over us. This will only get worse if not addressed now.
“Whether we like it or not if this continues our frustration and emotions will build and we will change towards one another.”
Other text messages showed how Crouch threatened to leave Barton if Jacob’s behaviour did not improve.
Messages revealed how the couple would put Jacob in bed or smack him for “crying for no reason”, and that in September, when Barton told Crouch she was bathing Jacob, he replied “3 foot deep, just hot water and some bleach xxxx”, a comment he later labelled in a police interview as “banter”.
When paramedics were called on December 30, they found Jacob dead in his bed and believed he had been dead for much longer than Barton and Crouch had claimed.
The pair were arrested on January 5 2021, but both claimed that they were unaware of any non-accidental injury and have never given an explanation as to how the injuries occurred.
Mrs Prior said: “When the fractures were raised, Crouch said that he had not noticed a change in Jacob. He never cried. He was never in discomfort. He was always on the go. He said that it did not make any sense.
“Crouch could not explain the injury to the torso. The only thing that might have caused the rib fractures was planking into the toy box.
She added: “He said that he doted on Jacob. He was his boy. He said that the house was very small and you could never be on your own.
“Despite the regimental discipline and the unreasonable behavioural expectations being placed on this little boy by Barton and Crouch, Crouch suggested in interview that Jacob was the beneficiary of their love and care.
“He described it as ‘safeguarding’. The prosecution say that the bruises on Jacob’s body, the broken ribs and the manner of his death fly in the face of such an assessment.”
In a police interview, Barton said Crouch would call her names such as “fat” and controlled her finances, and despite being bailed with conditions not to contact each other were soon living together because Barton was Crouch’s “rock”, and Crouch was Barton’s “everything”.
“What mattered to them was their love affair and their love story,” Mrs Prior added.
Barton, of Ray Street, Heanor, Derbyshire, and Crouch, of Donisthorpe Lane, Moira, Swadlincote, both deny murder, causing or allowing the death of a child, causing a child to suffer serious physical harm and three counts of child cruelty.
The trial, expected to last between six and eight weeks, continues.