Lt. Michael Byrd, the Capitol Police officer who shot and killed Ashli Babbitt on January 6, has rejected claims from her defenders that he opened fire without warning, telling NBC News that he ordered the fanatical Donald Trump supporter to stop advancing before he fired the fatal shot.
“I had been yelling and screaming,” Byrd said in an interview broadcast Thursday night, “‘Please stop, get back, get back, stop.’”
Video posted online by multiple witnesses that day showed that Babbitt, an Air Force veteran wearing a Stars and Stripes backpack and a Trump flag as a cape, was shot by Byrd as she climbed through the shattered window of the barricaded Speaker’s Lobby door, which was all that separated the mob of Trump supporters from members of Congress.
The officer’s statement matches the account of a fellow member of the pro-Trump mob, Thomas Baranyi, who caught Babbitt as she fell back. Baranyi, who still had Babbitt’s blood on his hand when he spoke to a local news crew outside the Capitol minutes later, said that “a number of police and Secret Service were saying, ‘Get back, get down, get out of the way.’ She didn’t heed the call.”
Further evidence that Byrd’s warning was clear to those around Babbitt comes from graphic video of the shooting posted on Twitter less than 40 minutes after the event by another witness. Those images clearly show that Baranyi, who was wearing a backward blue Trump cap and standing close to Babbitt, raised his hand and nodded in Byrd’s direction to signal his compliance with the command to stay back. Three seconds later, Babbitt climbed into the window to cross the barricade and was shot.
The unexamined claim that Byrd opened fire on Babbitt without warning has been central to the effort to portray her as a peaceful protester murdered by the police and, in the belief system of pro-Trump extremists, a sacred martyr.
When Rep. Paul Gosar asked FBI Director Christopher Wray in June if he knew the identity of the officer who “executed” Babbitt, the far-right Arizona Republican claimed that Byrd “appeared to be hiding, lying in wait, and gave no warning before killing her.”
While questioning FBI Director Wray, Rep. Paul Gosar asserts that Ashli Babbitt was "executed" pic.twitter.com/ySYscC096P
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) June 15, 2021
An online crowdfunding appeal to support legal efforts by Babbitt’s family, which has raised more than $240,000, ignores Baranyi’s account and the video evidence of his actions and asserts that “Ashli was entitled to a warning and chance to surrender before she was shot to death. Witnesses confirm that the officer did not give a verbal warning prior to firing.”
Terrell Roberts, a lawyer representing the Babbitt family, has described the fact that other witnesses among the pro-Trump mob said that they did not hear a warning from Byrd as a central feature in possible civil litigation. But in an interview last month, Roberts said his key witness was Tayler Hansen, a far-right political activist who filmed the shooting but was across the hall from Babbitt and Baranyi.
Hansen, who spent last summer painting “Baby Lives Matter” on streets outside abortion clinics and recording opposition research video of left-wing activists, is hardly a neutral witness. In posts for the far-right Gateway Pundit website, which is known for spreading misinformation, and on his Twitter account, Hansen has spent months spreading clues to Byrd’s identity online, demanding that the officer be charged with murder and even arguing with Byrd’s lawyer.
What’s more, just before Babbitt climbed through the window, Hansen’s ability to hear what Byrd was saying was no doubt diminished by the fact that he was standing right next to another videographer, John Sullivan, who was loudly shouting, “No! There’s a gun! There’s a gun! There’s a gun!” to draw attention to the fact that Byrd had raised his weapon.
Shortly after Byrd’s account was broadcast on Thursday, Tucker Carlson claimed that “Michael Byrd executed an enemy of the Biden administration” and did so “without warning her first.”
Carlson has been a central figure in the effort to cast Babbitt as a martyr, starting on the evening of her death, when he devoted the opening monologue of his show to a deeply misleading, inaccurate description of the viral video of her shooting recorded by Hansen.
“In the footage, which we’re not going to show you because it’s too upsetting, but you can find on the internet, the woman is standing in a hallway right off the House floor at the center of the Capitol building,” Carlson told his viewers. “She’s got an American flag tied around her neck. The scene around her is chaotic. People are bumping into each other, yelling, trying to get through the door into the Senate chamber. Suddenly, with no warning, there was gunfire. You hear a shot and the woman falls. She has been hit with a bullet.”
A careful review of the video evidence makes plain that Carlson misrepresented it from the start. To begin with, there is the false claim, which quickly became an article of faith on the right, that Babbitt was wrapped in the American flag when she was shot — rather than a Trump flag worn as a cape and a small red, white, and blue backpack. Then there is the fact that she was trying to get into the House, where lawmakers were still huddled, not the Senate, which had already been evacuated.
More importantly, Carlson told his viewers that the footage he was not screening for them that night showed that Babbitt was shot “with no warning” while just “standing in a hallway.” The very different truth, which is visible in the first second of Hansen’s video and in other clips that circulated online that day, is that Babbitt had climbed from the hallway into the window and was attempting to cross the final barricade between the rioters and the House chamber when Byrd opened fire.
Byrd, who has been subjected to a torrent of death threats and racist abuse since his identity was uncovered by far-right activists, spoke to Lester Holt of NBC News this week after an internal investigation by the Capitol Police “determined the officer’s conduct was lawful” and had “potentially saved Members and staff from serious injury and possible death from a large crowd of rioters.” In April, federal investigators closed a separate inquiry because they could find no evidence that “the officer did not reasonably believe that it was necessary to do so in self-defense or in defense of the Members of Congress and others evacuating the House Chamber.”