WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors on Friday urged a jury to reject a retired New York City police officer's argument that he was acting in self-defense when he swung a flagpole at police officers and tackled one of them during the U.S. Capitol riot.
Thomas Webster, a 20-year NYPD veteran, is the first Capitol riot defendant to be tried on an assault charge and the first to present a jury with a self-defense argument.
Jurors went home for the weekend about 30 minutes after getting the case. They're due back Monday for deliberations.
During the trial's closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly urged jurors to use their common sense and trust what they saw on several videos that captured the confrontation. Kelly said the videos show Webster swing his metal flagpole like a club, “bull rush” Metropolitan Police Department officer Noah Rathbun and then grab the officer's gas mask with both hands.
“Don't let the defendant off the hook for what he did that day,” Kelly said.
Webster, 56, testified Thursday that he was trying to protect himself from a “rogue cop” who punched him in the face. He also accused Rathbun of instigating the confrontation.
Rathbun testified that he didn’t punch or pick a fight with Webster as a mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, disrupting Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
Defense attorney James Monroe said Webster had a right to defend himself against a “bad cop” who was using excessive force.
“Acquit this man. Send him back to New York,” Monroe told jurors. “Get behind the truth. And I'm talking about the whole truth.”
Webster’s jury trial is the fourth for a Capitol riot case. The first three defendants to get a jury trial were convicted of all charges in their respective indictments. A judge decided two other cases without a jury, acquitting one of the defendants and partially acquitting the other.
A grand jury indicted Webster on six counts, including a charge that he assaulted Rathbun with a dangerous weapon, a metal flagpole. He wasn’t accused of entering the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Webster drove alone to Washington, D.C., from his home near Goshen, New York, on the eve of the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a U.S. Marine Corps flag on a metal pole when he approached the Capitol, after listening to then-President Donald Trump address thousands of supporters.
Webster said he went to the Capitol to “petition” lawmakers to “relook” at the results of the 2020 presidential election. But he testified that he didn’t intend to interfere with Congress’ joint session to certify the Electoral College vote.
Rathbun’s body camera captured Webster shouting profanities and insults before they made any physical contact. Webster said he was attending his first political protest as a civilian and expressing his free speech rights when he yelled at officers behind a row of bike racks.
The body camera video shows that Webster slammed one of the bike racks at Rathbun before the officer reached out with an open left hand and struck the right side of Webster’s face. Webster said it felt like he had been hit by a freight train.
Rathbun said he was trying to move Webster back from a security perimeter that he and other officers were struggling to maintain.
After Rathbun struck his face, Webster swung a metal flagpole at the officer in a downward chopping motion, striking a bike rack. Rathbun grabbed the broken pole from Webster, who charged at the officer, tackled him to the ground and grabbed his gas mask.
Rathbun testified that he started choking as the chinstrap on his gas mask pressed against his throat.
Webster said he grabbed Rathbun by the gas mask because he wanted the officer to see his hands and know that he didn't pose a threat.
"Does that make any amount of sense to any of you?" Kelly asked jurors.
Rathbun reported a hand injury from a separate encounter with a rioter inside the Capitol. He didn’t report any injuries caused by Webster, but jurors saw photos of leg bruises that Rathbun attributed to his confrontation with the retired officer.
Webster faces six counts: assaulting, resisting or impeding an officer using a dangerous weapon; civil disorder; entering and remaining in restricted grounds with a dangerous weapon; disorderly and disruptive conduct in restricted grounds with a dangerous weapon; engaging in physical violence in restricted grounds with a dangerous weapon; and engaging in an act of physical violence on Capitol grounds.
Webster retired from the NYPD in 2011 after 20 years of service, which included a stint on then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private security detail. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1985 to 1989 before joining the NYPD in 1991.
More than 780 people have been charged with riot-related federal crimes. The Justice Department says over 245 of them have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement.