Body camera video depicts a retired police officer “full of anger” attacking an outnumbered police officer who tried to fend off a mob of rioters that stormed the U.S. Capitol, a federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
But the defense attorney said that another video from a different angle shows former New York City police officer Thomas Webster acting in self-defense after the Metropolitan Police officer punched him first.
Jurors watched the two videos at the start of Webster’s trial, the first of dozens of cases in which a defendant is accused of assaulting police at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Assistant US Attorney Hava Merrill showed jurors a photo of Webster holding a US Marine flag on a metal pole in front of the Washington Monument before the riots broke out.
“He’s smiling in that photo, but that smile is going to get pissed off soon,” she said during the trial’s opening statements.
The attorney general told jurors they would hear testimony from Noah Rathbone, the officer accused Webster of the flag pole assault.
Webster pushed a bike rack at Rathbone before waving the flag pole at the officer in a downward chopping motion, hitting a metal barrier in front of the officer, according to Merrill. After Rathbone grabbed the broken pole and withdrew, Webster charged the officer and pointed him to the ground, with Rathbone beginning to choke from the chin strap on his gas mask, the attorney general said.
Defense attorney James Monroe accused Rathbone of using excessive force and provocation by punching Webster in the face.
“The government didn’t tell you about it,” Monroe told jurors.
Merrill said Rathbone is holding an open palm to create space between himself and Webster.
“But the defendant was getting angry,” she added.
US District Judge Amit Mehta, who is presiding over Webster’s trial, said during a bond filing hearing last June that he had not seen Webster punched in the face in a video. Judge described Webster as a provocateur.
“His behavior was this kind of dam breaker, at least in that area,” Mehta said, according to a transcript.
Webster, now self-employed, retired from the NYPD in 2011 after 20 years of service. He served in the Marine Corps in 1985, from 1989 before joining the NYPD in 1991. His service in the department included a stint in then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private security department.
Webster brought a gun when he traveled alone to Washington from his home in Florida, New York, a village in Orange County 70 miles northwest of New York City. He was wearing his flak jacket issued by the NYPD but said he left the gun in his hotel room when he drove to the Jan. 6 rally where Trump spoke.
Webster faces six counts, including assaulting an officer, resisting or obstructing an officer with a dangerous weapon. He is not charged with entering the Capitol on January 6.
“In his opinion, this is a protest. He is there to be heard,” Monroe said.
Monroe also argued that Webster was exercising his First Amendment right of free speech when he shouted profanity at the police that day. The defense attorney noted that Webster was upset because he saw others in the crowd injured and bleeding.
Webster’s fourth trial before jury and sixth overall. The first three accused in the Capitol riots were convicted in order to receive a jury trial on all charges in their indictments.
In two of the bench trials, a different federal judge heard testimony without jury before one defendant was acquitted and another was partially acquitted.
More than 780 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riots. The Ministry of Justice says that more than 245 of them are accused of assaulting or obstructing law enforcement. More than 250 of those accused of the riots pleaded guilty, most to nonviolent misdemeanours.
Jurors convicted two troublemakers of interfering with the officers. One of the rioters, Thomas Robertson, was an off-duty police officer from Rocky Mount, Virginia. The other, Texas resident, Jay Wesley Rivett, was also convicted of storming the Capitol with a mounted gun.
The third Capitol rioter indicted by a jury was Dustin Byron Thompson, an Ohio man who said he was carrying out the orders of then-President Donald Trump.