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Ex-NYPD officer found guilty in first Jan. 6 police assault trial

6 min

The first person tried on charges of assaulting a police officer in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was convicted Monday, after a federal jury deliberated about three hours and found retired New York Police Department officer Thomas Webster guilty of all six counts.

Webster, 56, of Goshen, N.Y., assaulted D.C. police officer Noah Rathbun with an aluminum Marine Corps flagpole, jurors found. The panel of eight women and four men also found Webster guilty of interfering with police in a riot and trespassing, disorderly conduct and violent conduct while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon on Capitol grounds.

Webster, who previously served on the protective security detail of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, was the first of about 150 defendants charged with assaulting an officer to take his case to a jury and the first to argue self-defense.

Federal juries in Washington have now found all four defendants who have gone to trial on felony charges guilty in the rioting that began after President Donald Trump urged supporters to go to the Capitol where Congress was confirming Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta set sentencing in September.

Two officers fought in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Who did wrong?

In video shown during last week’s four-day trial, Webster emerged from a crowd, hurled obscenities and jabbed his finger at a line of police before pushing a metal bike rack barrier into Rathbun. When the D.C. officer pushed him back hard with an open palm to the face, Webster swung an aluminum flagpole he was carrying down at the bike rack several times and tackled the officer to the ground as the crowd surged forward.

Webster, who said he was enraged by police use of tear gas and plastic projectiles against demonstrators, blamed Rathbun for not de-escalating the situation. Webster said the younger D.C. police officer started the fight, beckoning him with a hand gesture out of camera view before swatting him in the face. Webster said the blow felt “like a freight train” and caused him to fight back out of fear for his safety.

“I saw him starting to separate the racks to come after me,” Webster testified in his own defense. “I’m afraid. I thought he’s some rogue cop, and I was concerned for my safety.”

Prosecutors and witnesses, including police and FBI agents, rejected that characterization by Webster, who served as a Marine Corps infantryman from 1985 to 1989, saying he was the aggressor and denying any misconduct by Rathbun.

“This case is about a former officer who violently attacked another officer on the line outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 … with Congress at his back and nothing but a bike rack protecting him from thousands of angry rioters in front of him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Hava Mirell told jurors in an opening statement.

Joanna Burger, a U.S. Capitol Police officer standing next to Rathbun, testified that officers faced hostile crowds on all sides and a shower of tossed metal pipes, wood, glass and plastic bottles.

“All of our commands were ineffective. No one was listening,” Burger testified. “They didn’t care if they had to hurt us to get to lawmakers. … The threat … it was all around us at that point.”

Webster, a married father of three who has done landscaping work since retiring in 2011, admitted driving alone to Washington overnight on Jan. 4, eating military rations in his hotel room, then listening to Trump’s speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6 before joining protesters at the Capitol. There, he rushed up to a besieged police line and picked out an officer with a gas mask and helmet as one who “could handle it” if Webster got upset.

On Rathbun’s body-camera footage, Webster emerges from the crowd, directs a string of profanities at Rathbun, calls the police “Commies,” shouts, “You’re gonna attack Americans?” and challenges Rathbun to “take his [gear] off” and fight. At that point, he shoves the bike rack into the police line.

With his open left hand, Rathbun then cuffs Webster’s face, knocking him back. The videos don’t show whether Rathbun gestured at Webster beforehand as the retired New York police officer claimed.

The House Jan. 6 investigation committee has conducted over 1,000 interviews with insurrectionists and Trump aides. Here’s what’s next. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

FBI and D.C. police investigators said the D.C. officer was appropriately trying to “clear space” and defend the security perimeter as members of the mob surged forward on either side at 2:28 p.m. on the Lower West Terrace of the Capitol, about at the midpoint of a half-hour span when both the west and east sides of the building were first breached.

“He grabbed hold of the bike rack and pushed it into me,” Rathbun testified. “That was very concerning to me because he’s engaging in aggressive behavior, physically assaultive behavior. I was concerned that part of the barrier would be compromised and pushed out and everybody would be able to come forward.”

In the ensuing fight, Webster, in a red, white and black jacket, uses his hands to grip the gas mask around Rathbun’s face, an act captured in a photograph that Twitter sleuths erroneously tagged #EyeGouger.

In Webster’s defense, attorney James E. Monroe blasted Rathbun for using improper force, claiming he incited and taunted the older man out of camera view. He suggested Rathbun had a guilty conscience because he did not immediately disclose the incident to his superior or an FBI investigator, complete a use-of-force report or mention it in a private text to his brother.

“This is a dishonest, unprofessional police officer who took it on himself to punish my client for expressing himself in a way he found objectionable,” Monroe said in closing arguments, pointing jurors to the officers on either side of Rathbun who kept their hands on the barriers in front of them.

Webster said he was upset and fought back out of fear and “just pure frustration.”

“Don’t hurt the kid, but just let him know he’s not going to hit me again,” Webster testified.

U.S. trial attorney Katherine Nielsen pointed jurors to the video, saying it was Webster who invited Rathbun to fight and who was the aggressor, and that Rathbun was not on trial.

“All we see from an officer of 20 years is not de-escalation on his part, but escalation at every possible turn,” Nielsen said.