A federal jury on Monday found a former Marine and retired New York City police officer guilty of assaulting an officer at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, rejecting the man’s claim that he was acting in self-defense when he swung a flagpole at officers and charged at one of them, knocking him to the ground and grabbing at his helmet.
Thomas Webster, 56, was convicted of all six counts he faced for assaulting Metropolitan Police Department Officer Noah Rathbun, interfering with police during a civil disorder, and illegally being in a restricted area outside the Capitol with a weapon — in his case, a hollow metal flagpole with a US Marine Corps flag attached at the top that he’d brought to Washington from home.
Webster was the first person to go to trial in connection with the events of Jan. 6 to try out a self-defense claim on a jury. The guilty verdict, which came after roughly two hours of deliberation, is likely to give pause to other defendants considering a similar strategy, especially in cases like Webster’s where the government can rely on the mountain of video evidence from Jan. 6 to build its case.
A juror who agreed to speak with reporters outside but declined to share his name said that he found the prosecution's case against Webster "very comprehensive" and felt "quite comfortable" with returning a full guilty verdict. Webster's testimony on the stand, where he claimed he'd acted in self defense, "didn't provide anything positive for his case'," the man said.
"There was just a lot of evidence from every conceivable angle. There was so much video footage. It was all just laid out in front of us in a really comprehensive way'," he said.
Prosecutors presented Webster to the jury as a “rage-filled” man who launched an unprovoked attack on overwhelmed and outnumbered police officers who were trying — unsuccessfully, in the end — to hold back the mob of thousands of supporters of former president Donald Trump who’d descended on the Capitol complex. Webster and his lawyer, James Monroe, presented Rathbun as a “rogue” cop who incited a fight with Webster and then punched him so hard that Webster felt compelled to physically respond to protect himself.
The jury learned that Webster had been a Trump supporter and believed in at least some of the unfounded conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was tainted by voter fraud, but those beliefs didn’t feature prominently in the government’s case against him. Webster wasn’t charged with obstructing Congress’s certification of the election results or other crimes that would have required the jury to delve into exactly why Webster went to the Capitol and what he intended to do while he was there.
Webster was originally kept in jail after he was arrested, but US District Judge Amit Mehta agreed to let him go home while his case was pending in June 2021. Mehta scheduled his sentencing for Sept. 2. Webster will be allowed to go back home until then; the judge denied the government's request to place him in jail pending sentencing, saying it was a "close call" but noting that Webster had already been compliant with restrictive release conditions leading up to his trial.
The most serious charge that Webster was found guilty of, assaulting Rathbun with a weapon, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, although he is likely to face far less than that. The stiffest sentence so far for someone who pleaded guilty to assaulting police with a weapon at the Capitol is 63 months.
Over three days of witness testimony, the jury repeatedly watched a collection of videos that showed Webster’s confrontation with Rathbun from different angles, from start to finish. Rathbun’s body camera recorded the altercation up close, offering the jury a clear depiction not only of Webster’s actions but of what he said. Footage captured by Capitol surveillance cameras and people in the crowd offered bird’s-eye-view perspectives.
As Webster emerged at the police line near the west side of the Capitol, Rathbun’s body camera showed him angrily yelling and gesturing at the officers, who were trying to keep a row of metal bike racks in place against the fast-growing mob. Webster yelled at the group of officers but also appeared to focus his ire on Rathbun, shouting, “You fucking piece of shit. You fucking commie motherfuckers man. Gonna attack Americans? No fuck that. [unintelligble] Fucking commie fuck. Come on, take your shit off. Take your shit off. You communist motherfuckers. Fuck you.”
Webster, who testified in his own defense, told the jury that he was upset because he’d seen signs that civilians were being injured farther back in the crowd, although his defense presented no evidence of that. On cross-examination, the prosecutor pointed out that when Webster voluntarily spoke with the FBI a month after the insurrection, he didn’t say that was why he’d made his way up to the police line and didn’t discuss seeing injuries.
Webster claimed that Rathbun made a motion with his hand out of the frame of his body camera inviting Webster to cross the police line and fight. His lawyer argued one of the videos captured the hand gesture, but the zoomed-in footage wasn’t clear. Rathbun denied making such a gesture and maintained that he was using his hands to try to create distance from Webster.
Rathbun pushed Webster back as Webster began shoving the bike rack toward him. The officer said that as he used his left hand to swat at Webster, he made incidental contact with the right side of Webster’s head. He said that it was not a punch — one still image from his body camera footage showed his open hand on Webster’s head — and that the contact was provoked. He testified that the crowd was growing more hostile and the whole situation was fast becoming more dangerous, that Webster had already verbally signaled he wanted to fight by telling officers to take their “shit off” and by trying to push through, and that he felt he had to stop Webster from going forward.
Webster, meanwhile, maintained that the face contact was a punch that felt like a “freight train” and made him see “stars.” He testified that he believed Rathbun posed a threat, which is why he took the flagpole he was holding and swung it at the officers. The pole hit a metal bike rack and broke in half; Webster claimed he deliberately tried to avoid striking the officers. Rathbun said the two men had a scuffle and he took the remaining piece of pole that Webster was holding. Webster said he let the officer have it.
Rathbun described retreating with other officers to regroup, and his body camera footage showed Webster squaring up his arms and charging. Both men fell down, with Webster on top of Rathbun. The jury saw images of Webster with his hands on Rathbun’s helmet and gas mask. The officer said that Webster was trying to pull the gear off of his head, choking him in the process. Webster said he put his hands in front of Webster’s face to make sure the officer saw where his hands were — he explained that as a former police officer, he understood it was scary for law enforcement to not know where a person’s hands are — and to show that he didn’t pose a threat and couldn’t hurt him again.
After that final altercation, the two men separated and didn’t come into contact again. Webster remained outside on the Capitol grounds a little while longer; he wasn’t charged with any other acts of violence or property destruction, and there was no evidence that he went inside the building. The government did show the jury a video recorded by an unnamed person in the crowd in which Webster said to the camera, “Send more patriots.”
Aside from Webster’s testimony, his defense featured three friends who served as character witnesses. They all said they’d never seen him behave violently, describing him as “peaceful,” “calm,” and respectful. A prosecutor presented them with images of Webster’s confrontation with Rathbun, and when they demurred after being asked to acknowledge the violence depicted, the questioning came to a quick end.
The jury began deliberating late in the day on Friday and resumed around 9:30 a.m. on Monday. Lawyers began filing into the courtroom around 11:15 a.m.
Webster was the fourth person charged in connection with Jan. 6 to go before a jury, and the other three were found guilty as well. Two other defendants have opted for bench trials before a judge; one received a mixed verdict, and one was fully acquitted. Dozens of trials are scheduled through the rest of this year and into 2023.