Federal prosecutors sought a prison term of more than 17 years for Thomas Webster, 56, of Goshen, N.Y., who was the first riot defendant facing the felony charge of assaulting an officer to try his luck with a jury. Twelve others have pleaded guilty to a similar charge. But U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta said the government’s suggested sentence was disproportionate to what other rioters have received — the previous top sentence was slightly more than seven years — and he credited Webster’s 25 years of service with the Marines and the NYPD.
Webster took the witness stand at his trial and testified that he was acting in self-defense, saying D.C. police officer Noah Rathbun had instigated the fight. But video showed Webster yelling at police on the Lower West Plaza of the Capitol, as officers struggled to maintain a perimeter outside the building. Rathbun then pushed Webster in the face — Rathbun testified his hand slipped off Webster’s shoulder — before Webster swung and smashed a Marine Corps flagpole on a bike rack and then tackled Rathbun. Webster pulled the officer’s gas mask off, causing Rathbun to begin choking on tear gas, the officer testified.
The jury took three hours before finding Webster guilty in May of the assault and four other felony charges.
Mehta said he had watched the video of the incident repeatedly, “and I still remain shocked every single time I see it. …You are the first aggressor. … It was an intact police line. It’s not until your actions, Mr. Webster, that all hell broke loose. It’s your actions that open up the police line and let people through.”
The crowd then flowed to the Capitol, and “you were part of that, and not a small part,” the judge said. “That context matters.”
Webster was allowed to self-surrender at a later date, and walked out of the courthouse carrying what appeared to be a change of clothes, as if he expected to be taken into custody. He declined to comment as he left.
In the government’s sentencing memorandum, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hava Mirell said Webster’s argument that “a 20-year NYPD veteran believed he was entitled to retaliate with deadly and dangerous force against the vulnerable and non-violent Officer Rathbun is not only absurd, but dangerous. It may cause others to follow suit and use violence against an officer because of a political grievance.”
Webster, a married father of three, acknowledged driving to Washington alone on Jan. 5, 2021, carrying his NYPD-issued pistol, which he did not take to the Capitol. He did wear a tactical vest and carry a Marine Corps flag to the Capitol. Prosecutors said he served in the Marines from 1985 to 1989, and in the NYPD from 1991 to 2011.
Federal sentencing guidelines set a range of punishment of 210 to 262 months, or 17.5 to 21.8 years. Prosecutors recommended the 17.5 years for Webster, the stiffest punishment they have proposed against a Jan. 6 defendant. The government’s recommendation was still the low end of the range, even as it argued that Webster was convicted of “spearheading the breach of the police line at the Lower West Plaza, and for disgracing a democracy that he once fought honorably to protect and serve.”
In his closing argument at trial, Webster’s lawyer, James E. Monroe, criticized Rathbun for using improper force and called him “a dishonest, unprofessional police officer.” But in his sentencing memo filed last week, Monroe took a different approach. He said that Webster, who once served on protective duty for then-New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, “was one of the few people among the thousands of Americans present at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 who should have fully appreciated the enormity of the task assigned to Officer Rathbun and his fellow officers.”
“Casted in this light,” Monroe wrote, “Mr. Webster does not have a justifiable excuse for verbally abusing the officers present along the police line; pushing on the bicycle rack; using his flagpole to threaten Officer Rathbun; or in engaging in the unspeakable act of charging and tackling Officer Rathbun to the ground.”
Monroe noted that the federal probation office recommended a sentence of 120 months, or 10 years. He asked Mehta to impose a term of 127 days, the time he served in federal custody before he was released from pretrial detention.
Webster, sniffling and speaking haltingly, told the judge, “I wish I’d never gone to Washington, D.C. I wish the events of that horrible day never happened.”
At the end of his remarks, he turned to the audience and faced Rathbun.
“Most importantly, Officer Rathbun, I’m sorry,” Webster said. “I put myself on the same level as you, and that was wrong. I know how that impacts you and your family, and I’m sorry.”
Rathbun was not seriously injured. He was present in the courtroom but declined to comment after the sentencing.
Mehta said he was dubious of Webster’s testimony from the trial.
“The idea that you could sit on that witness stand, as you’ve done before under oath, and tell the jurors the reason you put your hands on his face mask was to show him you’re not going to hurt him is just not credible,” the judge said.
But Mehta said he was troubled that federal guidelines added more than six years to the possible sentencing range for Webster because he had worn body armor to the riot, in addition to enhancements for using a dangerous weapon and attacking a government official. And the judge noted that others convicted of assaulting police had received terms ranging from six to 63 months. Mehta also credited Webster’s late acceptance of responsibility.
Of the 12 defendants who have pleaded guilty to assaulting the police on Jan. 6, the average sentence has been 41.6 months. Of the four defendants in that group who admitted a more severe assault, of which Webster was convicted, the average sentence has been 54 months. All 12 of those defendants received credit at sentencing for “acceptance of responsibility,” which lowers the sentencing guidelines.
Webster was only the 34th defendant convicted and sentenced for any felony in connection with the Jan. 6 riot, a Washington Post database shows. The average felony sentence so far has been slightly less than 33 months. Only one felony defendant has not been sentenced to prison, Jacob Fracker. Also a police officer, Fracker was placed on two months home detention after he testified against his co-defendant, fellow officer Thomas Robertson. Robertson was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after a jury found him guilty of obstructing Congress and other charges.
There have now been eight jury trials, resulting in eight convictions. There have been 10 bench trials, with nine convictions. The acquittal occurred when a judge found that police allowed the defendant to enter the Capitol.
Robertson and Guy Reffitt, who were convicted at trial but were not accused of assaulting police, were both sentenced to 87 months in prison. That had been the longest sentence until Thursday.