A former Marine and retired New York police officer accused of assaulting a DC police officer at the US Capitol on Jan. 6 took the stand Thursday to argue why what on video looks like him swinging a flagpole at officers, charging and knocking an officer to the ground, and then grabbing at the officer’s helmet and gas mask were all in self-defense.
Over four hours of testimony, Thomas Webster maintained that Metropolitan Police Department Officer Noah Rathbun incited a physical confrontation when he made a hand gesture inviting Webster to fight, a claim that Rathbun denied. Webster told the jury that the rest of his exchanges with Rathbun were in response to a “punch” from the officer that felt like a “freight train,” another account that Rathbun denied. Videos played in court showed Rathbun leaning toward Webster and his open hand making contact with Webster’s face; Rathbun on Wednesday described the contact as incidental to his effort to swat at Webster to create distance during a volatile situation.
Webster is the fourth person charged in the Jan. 6 attack to face a jury — two other cases have been decided by judges — and the first to make a self-defense claim. Prosecutors presented multiple videos depicting the alleged assault by Webster from different angles, and Webster doesn’t deny that he had an encounter with Rathbun. His defense hinges on having the jury believe what he says was his state of mind at the time about the events captured in that footage, or at least create enough doubt to acquit.
How Webster’s case plays out could influence how other defendants awaiting trial on assault charges think about their own presentation to a jury, given the vast amount of video evidence from police body cameras, surveillance footage, and videos posted online by countless people in the crowd.
Webster insisted that he made an effort to not strike the officer, hurt him, or appear threatening. Asked why he repeatedly yelled at Rathbun, “take your shit off,” he acknowledged that phrase was normally an invitation to fight but said he’d meant it as a “rhetorical comment,” since he didn’t expect the officer to actually remove his gear.
Videos show Webster shoving the metal bike rack that served as a makeshift police line, to which he responded that he was just trying to show his “frustration.” Video evidence also shows Webster swinging a metal flag pole with the US Marine Corps flag that he’d brought from home toward the officers. Webster’s explanation for that was that he was acting in self-defense after the “punch,” and that he struck the bike rack in a deliberate effort to avoid hitting officers.
In response to videos that show Webster squaring up his arms and charging at Rathbun, Webster compared himself to a football player trying to tackle another player, adding that his goal wasn’t to hurt Rathbun but to stop the officer from hitting him again. The jury saw video and still images of Webster on top of Rathbun, where he is grabbing the officer’s helmet and gas mask. Webster said he was trying to make sure Rathbun saw where his hands were — noting it is scary for a police officer to not know where a person’s hands are — as well as to send a message that the officer couldn’t hurt him. Rathbun told the jury that Webster was trying to pull off his helmet and mask, choking him in the process.
US District Judge Amit Mehta limited Webster’s ability to invoke his training and experiences as a former police officer to suggest to the jury that he was an expert on use-of-force policies. Despite those restrictions put in place at the start of the trial, Webster offered a few comments from the stand that suggested he believed Rathbun had handled the crowd control situation poorly.
Assistant US Attorney Katherine Nielsen turned Webster’s law enforcement career back on him. She expressed skepticism that a veteran police officer wouldn’t understand that police at the Capitol were trying to get the mob to disperse when he came onto the grounds and encountered crowd control measures like tear gas and less-than-lethal explosives known as flashbangs.
Webster, 56, offered the jury an overview of his background, which included his enlisting in the Marines in 1985 and his joining the police force in New York City after an honorable discharge from the military. He retired from the New York Police Department after 20 years and started his own landscaping and snow removal business. A supporter of former president Donald Trump at the time — he said he now viewed politics “through a different lens” — he said he’d been “upset” in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
He explained he brought his red Marine Corps flag and wore a red snow plow jacket because he didn’t have other gear to signal his support for Trump, à la the red “Make America Great Again'' apparel that many people wore.
Webster denied he’d gone to the Capitol with a goal of disrupting Congress’s certification of the election results, testifying that he wanted only to be part of petitioning the government. He said that as he entered the outskirts of the Capitol grounds, he became upset because he saw signs that civilians were being hurt — children crying, for instance, and a couple in their 70s where the woman had blood on her face (the defense did not present evidence of this). He didn’t describe seeing police attacking members of the crowd firsthand. He insisted he wanted to keep an open mind before judging how police were handling the situation and headed to the front of the crowd to see what was going on.
During cross-examination, Webster confirmed that when he spoke to the FBI in February 2021, he didn’t tell agents that he’d seen injured people in the crowd or that he’d gone up to the front of the Capitol to investigate that. Instead, Nielsen said he’d told the FBI that he went up to the front to protest.
The government’s case against Webster centers on video from Rathbun’s body camera, which shows Webster emerging from the crowd to the front of the police line angrily yelling and gesturing at the officers. Webster said he was upset that people apparently had been injured back in the crowd when the police line was farther up. Nielsen asked Webster to admit he was aggressive toward the officers from the moment he came into frame on Rathbun’s body camera footage. Webster disagreed, saying he was expressing his First Amendment speech rights.
Throughout the confrontation between Rathbun and Webster, the jury saw videos that show a loud and chaotic scene around them, with numerous other fights breaking out between police and members of the mob. Webster said he felt pushed forward by the crowd but still felt compelled to defend himself, which is why he charged at Rathbun, who he described as standing some distance away in a “gladiator” stance.
Webster compared his physical confrontation with Rathbun to a “schoolyard" fight and said he didn’t have contact with the officer again once they’d separated a final time. The jury on Thursday saw video of Webster later continuing to make his way closer to the building; Nielsen highlighted to the jury that he eventually went past where he originally understood the police line to be.
The jury saw another video from the scene recorded by an unidentified person sometime after the altercation with Rathbun that includes Webster delivering a message to the camera, “We need more patriots.” Webster said it was a “silly” moment and that he hadn’t meant anything serious by it; he wanted to get his “15 minutes of fame,” he said.
Nielsen asked Webster if there was any mark on him in the “patriots” video that would show where Rathbun had hit him. Webster identified a cut below the left side of his mouth, prompting Nielsen to note that Webster had said Rathbun struck him on the right side of his head. Webster said he’d been hit twice. Webster’s lawyer, James Monroe, has heavily focused their defense on the hit to the head, although earlier in the day, Webster indicated Rathbun had been trying to hit him again when they were both on the ground.
The prosecution is expected to continue questioning Webster on Friday; Webster’s lawyer plans to present several short character witnesses to the jury before resting the defense presentation. After the jury left for the day, Mehta expressed frustration with both sides — at the government for failing to ask more concise, directed questions, and with Webster for trying to expand his answers beyond the scope of what Nielsen had asked. The judge gave both sides the “homework” of tightening up the examination when the trial kicked off again in the morning.