Ten family members and friends of Brandi Celenza sat on the left side of the courtroom gallery. Four family members of Keith Johansen sat on the opposite side. Johansen faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of Celenza at their home at 23 Felter Lane in Palm Coast the morning of April 7, 2018.
His defense is that the two 9mm bullets that struck Celenza–one in the center of the chest, one in the right breast–were self-inflicted. Johansen had told a 911 dispatcher the shots were accidental. Celenza’s 6-year-old child was in the house at the time. He was first charged with second-degree murder. The State Attorney’s Office later filed the first-degree charge.
Trial doesn’t start until March 16. But after the end of a nearly two-hour hearing Friday, when prosecution and defense argued a half-dozen pre-trial motions setting the ground rules of the trial–and lawyers already revealed unsettling and disturbing details about Johansen and Celenza–Circuit Judge Terence Perkins took the unusual step of walking toward the gallery and addressing both sides of the courtroom spectators. He wanted to set ground rules for them, too.
It was an immediate indication of the still-raw, powerful emotions–and opinions–dividing the two families and betraying preconceived certainties on both sides.
“It’s a lot different than what you see on TV, and I can’t tell you it’s a pleasant thing to watch,” Perkins told the two sides. He described his role, which he’s fulfilled innumerable times for years, then sought to prepare the spectators for a role they have no clue, and have no reason to have a clue, about. “This is not like a sporting event. This is not like there’s a home team, there’s visitors, and we’re going to go and cheer for the home team because they’re the home team,” the judge told them. “This is a process that is extremely important, because we’re going to ask six people that we don’t know to make decisions that have far-reaching consequences, and we want to make sure that they get it right. So we want to give them every opportunity to see the relevant evidence and hear the appropriate law, and to do that without being distracted by other things.”
One of the motions argued before Perkins was, in fact, to “prohibit prejudicial conspicuous spectators,” that is, forbiud spectators from wearing any kind of clothing that would show advocacy for one or the other individual at the heart of the trial, clothing that might demand a certain verdict, clothing that would show the emotional attachments of one side or the other. In this case, the motion was directed specifically at Celenza’s side.
The right of the Cenelza family to attend the trial “must not extinguish the burden on the prosecution to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt through evidence presented,” the defense’s motion argued. (Assistant Public Defenders Rosemarie Peoples and Matt Phillips are defending Johansen.) Celenza’s family, the motion claimed, “may create a spectacle that intentionally draws the attention of jurors to consider matters that are not in evidence, nor subject to cross-examination,” such as displays of emotion or overt messages on clothing (a 2014 case in a different circuit was successfully appealed for a new trial after people in the gallery, wearing “Bikers Against Child Abuse” jacket, were found to have prejudiced the jury).
The judge not only granted the motion, but then lectured the two sides, standing very clearly in front of Celenza’s family and friends.
“I’m trying to prepare you a little bit for an experience that is unlike any you’ve been through before,” Perkins said. “It’s a difficult experience at best, and I’m going to require that under those difficult circumstances to still respect the decorum and the process that we’ll be following, and understanding that at the end of the day, I don’t care what side of the courtroom you’re sitting on and what your involvement is with your family or friends or supporters, whatever, we want to give this jury every opportunity to get it right. That’s what this is all about. This is about truth and justice and fairness and impartiality and all of that, and we want to make sure that nothing gets in the way of that.”
The alternative is a mistrial.
It was Johansen, 36 at the time, who called 911 that April morning to report the shooting. He had wired the house with cameras that looked in and out, including a camera in the master bedroom. The couple is seen and heard arguing violently and for hours on April 5: Johansen, the prosecution says, had discovered that Celenza was having on online “infidelity.”
One of the motions argued on Friday related to the huge number of videos that could have been in evidence–possibly 80 hours’ worth, including 85 clips from April 5 alone. The prosecution informed the court that the number of video clips had been reduced significantly to 10 clips. But the defense was concerned about the content, some of which shows Celenza and Johansen in sexual situations, verbal arguments, and what the defense calls “the couple’s private use of slurs to include homophobic slurs and racial slurs and misogynistic slurs.”
Perkins wasn’t comfortable with the motin’s generalities. And the prosecution–Assistant State Attorneys Jason Lewis and Jennifer Dunton–were not going to give in on those grounds, after having reduced the number of videos to 10 clips. The slurs and the arguments, Dunton argued, establishes a pattern and a motive in explicit details, down to Johansen on video threatening to kill Celenza 48 hours before the 911 call.
In his interview with detective Johansen had provided a version of events that did not square with the version on video: he’d related how he’d been upset about her infidelity. But the arguments on video are confrontations–Johansen “berating” Celenza and calling her names, then specifically making threats to kill her. In one particular clip, Dunton said, “this is where he literally says, I’m going to kill you.” That night in another clip, “he mentions he’s going to punch her in the mouth and kill her.” In yet another clip that night, “he continues to threaten her, talks about ending her, makes the comment about tomorrow the shit’s going to hit the fan.” He pulls a firearm from a drawer in the same bedroom she died in, waves it around at her in a threatening manner and again threatens to kill her even as, in several clips, the couple is engaged in separate sexual situations.
“It’s bizarre to say the least,” Dunton told the court. “But in these videos Ms. Celenza can be seen masturbating while he’s literally threatening her, threatening to kill her, she’s crying while she’s masturbating, she asks for permission at one point to stop, as if there is no sexual gratification being achieved by this.” Dunton says. “There’s a lot more where they literally argue for hours while these sex acts are occurring that we’re not choosing to show.”
Peoples had asked the judge to go over the clips the same way he’d gone over autopsy photographs, when dealing with another motion where the defense had asked to limit the number of photographs allowed.
In both instances, the defense is attempting to limit prejudicial evidence, and evidence that it considers either lacking in evidentiary value or that would be “cumulative” (the same sort of evidence shown repeatedly with slight changes, which is a form of badgering the jury with what, in that cumulative form, amounts to implicitly emotional ammunition playing on the jury’s sensibilities, and that the judge had told spectators they could not display). But those determinations are often subjective, and it’s up to the judge to balance the interests of the prosecution trying to prove a case with explicit evidence and the defense trying to keep its client from being judged on emotional evidence.
But Perkins all but rebuked Peoples when she asked him to go over each video–when she herself had not done so, and could not tell the court specifically what she wanted left out. So the judge didn’t rule in her favor, but deferred his ruling to a time when Peoples could say more specifically what she was objecting to.
Between the motion about the video clips and the photographs, the two sides had made their strategy very clear: the prosecution will paint Johansen as a jealous man who’d become enraged by his wife’s “infidelity,” and in a 48-hour period, went from taunting to killing her, while removing the video from the bedroom the morning of the shooting: that video angle somehow disappeared (while another video in the house shows Johansen running around the living room, hiding narcotics while he’s on the phone with 911, when he was claiming to be with Celenza checking on her wounds.) The defense will argue that it was a self-inflicted gunshot, and that Johansen had nothing to do with it.
But the defense also had another motion that added a twist to its strategy: it was asking the court to compel a neighbor to submit to a deposition, after he’d missed four appointments, though he’d never been served to appear. He has, however, called People’s office to let her know he would refuse to be served. “We would like to further pursue this individual as a potential suspect,” Peoples told the judge, asking him to issue an order requiring the neighbor to appear. The judge said he’d be willing to do so, but only after the neighbor had been served.
Celenza’s group filed out quietly at the end of the hearing and the judge’s admonitions to the gallery. Johansen’s remained in the courtroom, seeking to have as long a look at him as they’d be permitted, as he spoke quietly with Peoples.