Juries deny a series of defenses at Capitol riots

Juries

FILE – This still image from the Metropolitan Police Department’s body-worn camera video shows Thomas Webster, in a red jacket, at a barricade line on the western front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington. Retired New York City police officer Webster is the next to stand trial, and jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday, April 25, 2022. Webster has claimed he acted in self-defense when he tackled a police officer who tried to protect the Capitol from a mob on January 6th. (Metropolitan Police Department via AP, File)

AP

Juries have heard – and rejected – a series of apologies and arguments from the first troublemakers who were put on trial for storming the US capital. The next jury to get a Capitol riot case could hear yet another new defense this week at the trial of a retired New York City police officer.

Thomas Webster, a 20-year veteran of the NYPD, has claimed that he acted in self-defense when he tackled a police officer who was trying to protect the Capitol from a mob on January 6, 2021. Webster’s lawyer has also claimed that he exercised his first unchanged freedom of speech when he shouted swear words at the police that day. Juries were selected Monday and are expected to hear lawyers’ opening statements on Tuesday.

Webster, 56, is the fourth Capitol rebel defendant to receive a jury trial. Each has presented a separate line of defense.

An Ohio man who stole a row of hangers from an office in the Capitol testified that he “follows the president’s order” from Donald Trump. A Virginia police officer claimed he only went into the Capitol to pick up a co-officer. A lawyer for a man from Texas who confronted the Capitol police accused prosecutors of rushing to verdict on a person who tended to exaggerate.

These defenses did not affect the juries at their respective trials. In total, a total of 36 jurors unanimously convicted the three troublemakers for all 17 counts in their indictment.

Webster faces the same fate if the blistering words of a federal judge are any guideline. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who will preside over Webster’s trial, has described his videotaped behavior as “among the most indefensible and reprehensible” that the judge has seen among cases on Jan. 6, with “no real defense for it.”

“You were a police officer and you should have known better,” Mehta told Webster at a court hearing in June last year, according to a transcript.

But a dozen jurors, not the judge, will decide the case against Webster, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who withdrew from the NYPD in 2011.

A wealth of video evidence and self-incriminating behavior from rebel defendants has given the prosecutors the upper hand in many cases. Mary McCord, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and a former Justice Department official, said jurors often do not have to rely on testimony or clues because videos captured much of the January 6 violence and destruction.

“When I was a prosecutor and tried cases, I would have loved to have had cases where the whole crime was on video. It just does not happen that often. But for juries, it can be very powerful, ”she said.

Webster’s lawsuit is the sixth overall. In a couple of lawsuits, another federal judge heard testimony without a jury before acquitting one defendant and partially acquitting another.

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump nominee who acquitted Matthew Martin of all charges, said it was reasonable for the New Mexico man to believe the police allowed him to enter the Capitol. In the first trial, McFadden convicted New Mexico-elected official Couy Griffin of illegally entering restricted Capitol areas, but acquitted him of participating in the disorder.

Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at George Washington Law School and a former Justice Department official, said it can be difficult for prosecutors to secure convictions for defendants who simply walked into the Capitol and did not exhibit any violent or destructive behavior.

“I think the people who have the best chances are the ones who say, ‘I was just there and I was swept up with everyone else.’ The government will have to have a way of showing that there is more than that, otherwise the government will lose, “Saltzburg said.

Webster carried a pistol and a Marine Corps flag attached to a metal pole as he traveled alone to Washington from his home in Florida, New York, a village about 70 miles northwest of New York City. He wore his NYPD-issued bulletproof vest, but says he left the gun in his hotel room when he went to the January 6 demonstration where Trump was speaking.

Police body camera video captured Webster’s confrontation outside the Capitol with a number of officers, including one identified only as “Officer NR” in court papers.

The unnamed officer of the Metropolitan Police Department described the meeting in a written statement. The officer said Webster swung the flagpole toward him in a downward slashing motion, hitting a metal barricade and then attacking him with clenched fists.

“He pushed me to the ground and tried violently to tear away my gas mask and ballistic helmet. This made me suffocate and gasp for air before another participant in the riot helped me to my feet,” the officer wrote.

The officer said he withdrew behind a police line after Webster squeezed him to the ground.

“His actions, attacks and targeted assaults made me fear for my life and could easily have left my wife and two young children without a husband and father,” the officer wrote.

Defense attorney James Monroe has claimed that the unnamed officer pointed at Webster and “invited him to take part in a fight” before reaching beyond a police barrier and slapping Webster in the face. Webster “used the amount of force he reasonably thought necessary to protect himself” by tackling the officer to the ground, Monroe said in a lawsuit.

However, Mehta said the video does not show Webster being slapped in the face. The judge described Webster as an instigator.

“It was his behavior that somehow broke the dam, at least in that area,” Mehta added.

Webster, now a self-employed landscape gardener, was drafted into the Marine Corps in 1985, was honorably dismissed in 1989, and joined the NYPD in 1991. His departmental service included a stay on then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private security details.

Monroe claimed that “Officer NR” had reached over a metal barrier and pushed to a “peaceful” man dazzled by pepper spray.

“As a former U.S. Marine and member of law enforcement, Mr. Webster’s moral instinct was to protect the innocent,” Monroe wrote.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hava Mirell has argued that Webster should be held to a higher standard given his professional experience.

“If he was there to protect the innocent, then he should have averted other troublemakers from the barricade, not the other way around,” Mirell said during the trial.

Webster faces six charges, including assault, resisting or obstructing an officer by using a dangerous weapon. He is the first defendant in Capitol riots to have been charged with assault. He is not accused of entering the Capitol.

More than 780 people have been charged with riot-related federal crimes. The Justice Department says more than 245 of them have been charged with assaulting or obstructing law enforcement. More than 250 insurgents have pleaded guilty, mostly to non-violent offenses.

Juries judged two troublemakers for meddling in officers. One of them, Thomas Robertson, was an off-duty police officer from Rocky Mount, Virginia. The other, Texas resident Guy Wesley Reffitt, was also convicted of storming the Capitol with a holster.

The third Capitol troublemaker convicted by a jury was Dustin Byron Thompson, a man from Ohio who said he followed Trump’s orders.

“Even if jurors accepted that (Thompson) felt he was doing what the former president wanted, it would still not be a legal excuse,” said McCord, the Georgetown professor. “When juries are able to witness what happened, they can make that assessment relatively easily.”

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