US Capitol riot: Jury convicts NYPD veteran of assaulting officer

Verdict comes as House panel investigating January 6, 2021 riot requests cooperation of three Republican legislators.

This still frame from Metropolitan Police Department body-worn camera video shows Thomas Webster, in a red jacket, at a barricade line at on the west front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 [File: Metropolitan Police Department via AP Photo]

A jury in the United States has convicted a New York Police Department (NYPD) veteran of assaulting an officer during last year’s riot at the US Capitol, rejecting his self-defence argument.

The federal jury on Monday found Thomas Webster guilty of all six counts against him, including a charge he assaulted a police officer with a dangerous weapon, a metal flag pole.

Webster, a 20-year NYPD veteran, was the first Capitol riot defendant to be tried on an assault charge and the first to present a jury with a self-defence argument.

The 56-year-old testified that he was trying to protect himself from a “rogue cop” who punched him in the face. He also accused the Metropolitan Police Department officer, Noah Rathbun, of instigating the confrontation.

But Rathbun testified that he did not punch or pick a fight with Webster as a mob of former US President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an effort to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.

Authorities have charged more than 780 people with federal crimes related to the riot, which took place shortly after Trump delivered an incendiary speech in Washington, DC in which he reiterated false election fraud claims and urged his supporters to “fight like hell”.

The US Department of Justice says more than 245 of them have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement. More than 100 officers were injured.

Webster’s jury trial was 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. He was not accused of entering the Capitol on January 6.

Prosecutors asked for Webster to be detained pending sentencing, which is scheduled for September 2, but the judge agreed to let him remain free until that hearing. He will be monitored with an electronic ankle bracelet.

Webster drove alone to Washington, DC, from his home near Goshen, New York on the eve of the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a US Marine Corps flag on a metal pole when he approached the Capitol after listening to Trump’s speech.

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 did not intend to interfere with the joint session of Congress 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.

Violent insurrectionists, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.
More than 780 people have been charged with federal crimes in relation to the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol [File: John Minchillo/AP Photo]

“It was a hard hit, and all I wanted to do was defend myself,” Webster said. He also said he believed Rathbun was coming after him and recalled thinking, “He’s gone rogue.”

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 flag pole 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 chin strap on his gas mask pressed against his throat. “That’s not a position that anyone wants to be in,” Rathbun said.

Webster said he grabbed Rathbun by the gas mask because he wanted the officer to see his hands.

Monday’s jury decision came as a US House of Representatives committee investigating the Capitol riot requested the cooperation of three Republican legislators: Representatives Andy Biggs, Mo Brooks and Ronny Jackson.

“As we work to provide answers to the American people about that day, we consider it a patriotic duty for all witnesses to cooperate. We urge our colleagues to join the hundreds of individuals who have shared information with the Select Committee,” the committee wrote on Twitter.

Whether the three lawmakers will voluntarily cooperate with the panel remains to be seen. Biggs, Brooks and Jackson did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the Reuters news agency.

Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy rejected demands by the committee for testimony, saying it does not serve “any legislative purpose”.

Brooks, an Alabama Republican, had a falling out with Trump in March after the ex-president accused him of not doing enough to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

After Trump withdrew his endorsement of Brooks’s struggling campaign, Brooks issued a statement in March accusing Trump of making unconstitutional demands to rescind the 2020 election results.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies