Was it self-defense and the defense of others, or was it an unjustified attack with a baseball bat?
The jury in Comanche County District Judge Emmit Tayloe’s courtroom on Thursday were tasked with answering this question before finding Kristopher Werner Gohl, 45, of Lawton, not guilty of aggravated assault and battery, a crime that is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Gohl was on trial on Wednesday and Thursday for allegations of striking Bruce Rodenberger three times with a baseball bat on April 15, 2021. Rodenberger now suffers from severe disabilities and was not able to verbally testify in court.
At the heart of the trial was a security video that showed Rodenberger leaving the house, walking on the sidewalk and Gohl coming out shortly after, standing on the top stairs with a baseball bat. Rodenberger then came back toward the staircase, but turned away after Gohl made a step toward him, while remaining at the top of the stairs.
However, that’s when the video stopped for what Assistant District Attorney John Roose said was 59 seconds, resuming only when Rodenberger was already on the ground at the top of the stairs.
For Roose, this was evidence enough to argue that Rodenberger did not attack Gohl and there was no reason for self-defense.
“Why wasn’t Kris letting him walk away? Kris moved to him. It doesn’t look like Bruce is a threat to anybody,” Roose argued. “The video is exactly what you see, the victim is 20, 30 feet off the door. Who was he threatening?”
Defense Attorney Chance Rabon in his closing statement said that Kris had every right to stand where he stood.
“Nobody should be provoked by somebody standing on stairs,” he said. “Words alone don’t make someone an aggressor. Kris did not chase Bruce down, Bruce came back.”
Instead, Rabon said, Gohl had “made a stance against domestic violence.” He emphasized that Gohl was acting in self-defense and the defense of Rodenberger’s then-girlfriend Kira Wilkerson, who had testified she’d been beaten by Rodenberger many times, among others on that night, according to Rabon.
Gohl’s then-girlfriend Stormy Johnson, whose apartment he was at on that evening, had testified earlier on Thursday that “screaming” and “banging on the floor” happened “almost every night” in the apartment above them, causing her son to wake up in the middle of the night. She also recalled an incident of Wilkerson telling her that “he just broke my nose.” She also testified that Gohl had helped Wilkerson before, for example by picking her up from a gas station after she’d been beaten up.
According to Johnson, she and Wilkerson had come up with a sign, loud stomping on the floor, that Wilkerson could give if she needed urgent help. A sign that Johnson and Gohl heard on the night of April 15, 2021, and Johnson testified that she recalled saying, “we have to help her.”
When Rodenberger came down the stairs and walked out of the breezeway and onto the sidewalk, Gohl positioned himself in front of the door to the house and warned Rodenberger he would “crack” him with the baseball bat if he returned up the stairs. Johnson testified that Gohl warned Rodenberger “several times.”
The prosecution disagreed.
Roose: “When Bruce is outside, is he beating up Kira? If Kira is not out there, how are you defending her?”
Roose’s closing statement also focused heavily on the question of reasonable force, one of the hallmarks when it comes to deciding if an action was in fact self-defense.
“Bruce didn’t have a weapon, he never had a weapon,” Roose said. “If Bruce had no weapon, why use a bat? Even his girlfriend thought he used too much force.”
Rabon disagreed, saying that Gohl had only used 25 percent force in his first swing, and 50 percent in his second, but Rodenberger kept attacking him.
“Bruce couldn’t stand somebody between him and his victim,” he said. “Kris tried not to go full board, but Bruce didn’t give Kris that option.”