Thomas Webster is facing multiple charges for allegedly assaulting a police officer on January 6.
A former Marine and retired New York police officer accused of assaulting a D.C. police officer at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 took a stand on Thursday to debate why what’s on video looks like him swinging flagpoles at officers, Rushing in and hitting an officer on the ground, then grabbing the officer’s helmet and gas mask was an act of self-defense.
More than four hours of testimony, Thomas Webster asserted that Metropolitan Police Officer Noah Rathbun incited a physical confrontation when he invited Webster to fight, a claim Rathbun denies. Webster told jurors that the rest of his exchange with Rathbun was in response to a “punch” from the officer that resembled a “freight train,” another account Rathbun denied. Videos played before the court showed Rathbun leaning toward Webster and his open hand in contact with Webster’s face; Rathbun on Wednesday described the contact as accidental with his attempt at Webster to distance himself in an unstable situation.
Webster is the fourth person to be charged in the January 6 attack to face a grand jury – two other cases that have been decided by the judges – and the first to make a request for self-defense. Prosecutors presented multiple videos depicting the alleged attack by Webster from different angles, and Webster did not deny that he had met Rathbun. His defense revolved around letting the jury believe that what he said was his state of mind at the time about the events recorded in that video, or at least creating enough doubt to acquittal.
How Webster’s case unfolded could affect how other defendants awaiting trial on assault charges think about their presentations to the jury, with large amounts of video evidence from police body cameras, surveillance footage and videos posted online by countless people in the crowd.
Webster asserted that he tried not to attack the officer, injuring him or appearing threatening. When asked why he repeatedly shouted at Rathbun, “undress,” he admitted that the phrase was often a fight invitation but said he meant it was a “bombastic comment,” as he didn’t expect the officer to actually remove his device.
The videos show Webster shoving metal bike racks that serve as a makeshift police line, after which he replies that he is just trying to express his “frustration.” Video evidence also showed Webster brandishing a metal flagpole with the U.S. Marine Corps flag that he had brought from home toward the officers. Webster’s explanation for that was that he was acting in self-defense after the “punch” and he hit the bike rack in a deliberate attempt to avoid hitting the officers.
In response to videos showing Webster crossing his arms and lunging at Rathbun, Webster compared himself to a football player trying to track down another player, adding that his goal was not to injure Rathbun but to prevent the officer from hitting him again. The jury watched video and still images of Webster atop Rathbun, where he was grabbing the officer’s helmet and gas mask. Webster said he was trying to make sure Rathbun saw where his hand was — noting that police would be intimidating not knowing where a person’s hand was — as well as sending the message that the police couldn’t injure him. Rathbun told the jury that Webster was trying to take off his helmet and mask, causing him to suffocate in the process.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta limited Webster’s ability to invoke his training and experience as a former police officer to suggest to the jury that he was an expert on the use of force policy. Despite those restrictions put in place at the start of the trial, Webster made a few comments from the stands arguing that he believed Rathbun had handled the crowd control situation poorly.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Nielsen rejected Webster’s law enforcement career back to him. She expressed skepticism that a veteran police officer would not understand that police at the Capitol were trying to disperse the crowd when he arrived at the base and encountered crowd control measures such as tear gas and less lethal explosives known as flashbang.
Webster, 56, provided the jury with an overview of his background, including his enlistment in the Marine Corps in 1985 and his enlistment in the Police Force in New York City after an honorary discharge. 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 sees politics “through a different lens” – said he was “saddened” by the aftermath of the 2020 election.
He explained that he carried his red Marine flag and wore a red snow plow jacket because he didn’t have other equipment to signal his support for Trump, which was the red “Make America Great Again” outfit that many wore.
Webster denied that he came to the Capitol with the aim of breaking Congressional certification of the election results, testifying that he only wanted to join the government petition. He said that when he entered the outskirts of the Capitol, he became annoyed by seeing signs that civilians were being hurt — children crying, for example, and a couple in their 70s where the woman had blood on her face (the defense didn’t give evidence of this). He did not describe witnessing police attacking members of the crowd firsthand.
He insisted that he wanted to keep an open mind before assessing how the police were handling the situation and going to the front of the crowd to see what was going on.
During cross-examination, Webster confirmed that when speaking to the FBI in February 2021, he did not tell agents that he had seen the injured in the crowd or that he had gone before the Capitol to investigate it. . Instead, Nielsen said he told the FBI he was up front in protest.
The government’s lawsuit against Webster focused on video from Rathbun’s main camera, which showed Webster emerging from the crowd in front of an angry line of police shouting and gesturing to officers. Webster said he was saddened that people appeared to have been injured again in the crowd as the police line was further away. Nielsen asked Webster to admit he had been aggressive with the officers from the moment he appeared in rathbun’s on-camera footage.
Webster disagreed, saying he was expressing his First Amendment’s right to speak.
Throughout the confrontation between Rathbun and Webster, the jury saw videos showing scenes of noise and chaos surrounding them, with more fights breaking out between police and members of the crowd. Webster said he felt pushed forward by the crowd but still felt compelled to defend himself, which is why he lunged at Rathbun, who he described as standing far away in a “gladiator” pose.
Webster compared his physical confrontation to Rathbun’s to an “off-campus” fight and said he didn’t get back in touch with the officer after they last separated. The jury on Thursday watched video of Webster then continued to approach the building; Nielsen insisted to the jury that he eventually came across where he initially understood to be the police line.
The jury watched another video from the scene recorded by an unidentified person after an argument with Rathbun, which included Webster sending a message to the camera, “We need more patriots.” Webster said it was a “silly” moment and he didn’t mean anything serious about it; He wants to get “15 minutes of fame,” he said.
Nielsen asked Webster if there was any trace of him in the Patriots” video showing where Rathbun had hit him. Webster identified a cut below the left side of his mouth, prompting Nielsen to note that Webster had said that Rathbun had hit him to the right side of his head. Webster said he was beaten twice. Webster’s attorney, James Monroe, has focused heavily on their defense of the head-to-head hit, though earlier in the day, Webster pointed out that Rathbun tried to hit him again while they were both on the ground.
Prosecutors are expected to resume questioning Webster on Friday; Webster’s attorney plans to present some brief witnesses to the jury before stopping his defense presentation. After the jury left for the day, Mehta expressed frustration with both sides — at the government for not asking brief, directional questions and with Webster for trying to extend his answer beyond what Nielsen had asked. The judge gave both sides the “homework” of tightening the checks when the trial resumed in the morning.