It took attorneys in the Keith Johansen trial barely four hours today to pick a jury of 12 and two alternates in the trial of Keith Johansen, the 39-year-old Palm Coast man facing a first-degree murder charge in the death by gunshot of 25-year-old Brandi Celenza over three years ago in the couple’s home on Palm Coast’s Felter Lane.
It was a relatively swift selection from a single pool of 50 potential jurors before Circuit Judge Chris France, who is presiding over the trial. Lawyers were prepared to go through two such pools. Some 100 jurors had been summoned. Jury selection in the simultaneous trial of Deviaun A. Toler on child abuse charges, in a courtrooms three floors up, took about 90 minutes longer to settle on six jurors and two alternates.
Assistant State Attorneys Jason Lewis and Jennifer Dunton and court-appointed defense attorney Garry Wood of Palatka agreed on a jury of nine men and five women in the Johansen case, including the two alternates. They did so with few procedural interruptions through the morning and afternoon selection. There were only a handful of sidebars with the judge and only one objection from Wood.
The murder charge exposes Johansen to a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, if he is convicted. He turned down a plea offer. The state had offered 25 years to life in an open plea (it would have been at the judge’s discretion to set the actual term), or, alternately, 50 years in prison which, given Johansen’s age, would have amounted to a life term. Even with “gain time” (or release for good behavior after serving 85 percent of a sentence), he would have been 78 at the time of his last day in prison.
One of the more high-profile trials of the last few years in Flagler–Court TV will be covering it–the case hinges on indirect evidence. The admissibility of some of that evidence has yet to be decided. The prosecution has surveillance video clips from inside the house graphically revealing sexual situations underscoring infidelities cleaving the couple’s relationship on one hand and Johansen’s violent temper, threats and racism on the other. The defense is seeking to keep out many of those clips. (See: “Keith Johansen’s Defense Wants to Keep Out Evidence of His Racist and Sadistic Threats Before Shooting Death of Wife Brandi Celenza.)
A ruling is expected Tuesday morning, either by France or by Circuit Judge Terence Perkins on whether the evidence will be allowed. Perkins had handled every step of the Johansen case since it began three and a half years ago. He’s presiding over the Toler trial, however, after himself scheduling both for this week. He is loath to delay trials more than absolutely necessary, and Johansen, presumed innocent, has been at the Flagler County jail on no bond, awaiting his, for 1,277 days and counting.
Attorneys today asked jurors about their thoughts regarding pictures of corpses, whether they possessed guns (several hands went up), what they thought of homes wired with internal security cameras, whether they had been the victim of a crime (several hands), of domestic violence (several hands), whether they would judge a person differently based on the person’s sexual habits (one, a pastor’s spouse, did), and of course whether they had heard about the case.
Every one of the questions related in one way or another to elements of the case.
Keith Johansen’s 911 Call
Celenza died by one gunshot to the chest. Johansen’s defense: it was suicide. He called 911 and told a 911 dispatcher that he was in the shower when he heard the gunshot. (Celenza’s 6-year-old son was in the house at the time. He would later tell authorities that he often heard his mother scream. He is not testifying.) Based on court records, the interior of the house was wired with surveillance cameras, though the shooting itself is not recorded. The couple was estranged, the period leading up to the shooting a hurl of accusations and recriminations as Johansen was embittered over his wife’s alleged infidelities and other issues.
The prosecution also asked potential jurors whether they’d give any less credence to an inmate testifying–a tiny window into the testimony to come of Joseph Colon, who is serving 30 years in prison for selling heroin to a woman who died of an overdose, and who shared a cell with Johansen at the county jail previously. Sharp and polemical, Colon is a defense witness.
More than a dozen hands went up when Lewis asked if jurors had heard of the case, a question usually followed by inquiries about whether the jurors had formed opinions, or could be too easily influenced. Not a single one of those jurors was picked–for that or other reasons: one juror spoke of an inability to deal with images of a dead person. Another had a Wednesday doctor’s appointment. Two jurors no longer live in Flagler but ended up in the pool anyway (they’d very recently moved), two were released because of language barriers, another for health reasons.
The jury includes a director of operations, a substitute teacher, a product manager, a nurse, a production engineer, an academic administrator, a small business owner, a salesperson, two Publix employees, a juror who described the work as manufacturing and supply chain. Some were retired, one was semi-retired, one–the youngest–works and is a full-time college student.
Some of those not chosen included an artist who makes jewelry and guitars, a writer of fantasy fiction who writes under an assumed name (the prosecution asked for the name, and the writer revealed it), a person retired from the Florida Army National Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The excluded also included a surgeon who knew just how to get excused. He spoke proudly, and with the loudest voice in the pool, of his awareness of Wood’s “stellar reputation” and of the fact that he was “having dinner Saturday night with my good friend R.J. Larizza.” Larizza is the elected state attorney in the Seventh Judicial Circuit–Flagler’s district–making him the boss of Lewis and Dunton. That was enough to guarantee the surgeon an exit.
A reporter aside, just one person not associated with the court or the jury pool attended the proceedings: Celenza’s father. The trial is likely to draw family and friends on both sides of the case, as pre-trial hearings had, to the point that Perkins had to pre-emptively warn the two sides to control their courtroom behavior and clothing in march 2020, when the trial was just about to move ahead before the pandemic derailed it. (See “Judge Sets Ground Rules Ahead of Keith Johansen Murder Trial.”)
Opening arguments are scheduled for 9 a.m. in Courtroom 401 at the Flagler County courthouse.