Keith Johansen’s defense lawyer had a few surprises for the prosecution and for those familiar with Johansen’s first-degree murder case as it’s unfolded in pre-trial hearings over the past three and a half years.
Johansen’s wife Brandi Celenza did not kill herself the morning of April 7, 2018 in Palm Coast’s F Section, as Johansen had claimed when he called 911. Nor had she been killed from an accidental discharge, as Johansen had also claimed. Johansen had not heard two gunshots when he was in the shower. He hadn’t rushed out, all wet, as he’d told the 911 dispatcher. Those were all lies Johansen told, his defense attorney now says.
The prosecution had prepared its case based on all those premises. The defense now had a different story.
“Ms. Celenza was killed in self defense,” Garry Wood, Johansen’s defense attorney, told the jury of 12 and two alternates in opening arguments this morning. “There was no plan to kill Ms. Celenza that morning, or at all. There was no intent to kill her.”
Johansen, Wood told the jury, had been in the shower, but he heard his wife call him by his nickname. He came out of the bathroom and saw his wife with a gun, a Baretta. He was not immediately under threat, since Wood then said Johansen went to his bedroom to retrieve a gun of his own. Somehow Celenza managed to squeeze herself between the couple’s bed and a wall (where she was found), and pointed the gun at Johansen. “It’s at that point Mr. Johansen uses the lawful defense of self defense,” Wood said. He fired. Twice.
The first shot was a rubber bullet, a non-lethal round. It did not kill Celenza, but struck her chest. Non-lethal rounds are not at all painless, and can injure. But they are used to disable and disorient assailants, not kill them. Wood did not explain to the jury why Johansen fired the second shot, or if Celenza was still threatening him with her gun. That round was lethal. It shot through Celenza and lodged in the wall behind her, the couple’s bedroom wall. “But this is a case tragically of self defense as a result of the actions Ms. Celenza took that morning,” Wood told the jury.
Contradicting evidence of interior surveillance video the prosecution will present to the jury, Wood described the couple as getting along in the days leading up to the shooting, visiting with friends, acting as couples do. There had not been “any so-called threats or arguments” earlier that week from Johansen, Wood said. What there had been, before the shooting, was a methamphetamine binge by both Johansen and Celenza, several sleepless nights, and a binge that Wood only vaguely linked to Celenza’s alleged motive for threatening her husband. “You’re not my husband, you’re plastic,” she had allegedly told him.
He did not explain what, other than the meth, had led Celenza, who had ostensibly not been arguing with her husband, who had been visiting friends with her husband, who had made plans to see her sister at the county fair later that day, to threaten him with a gun to the point of causing her husband to shoot her twice, as her 6-year-old son was watching TV in a room a few steps away.
Wood doesn’t have to explain. The defense isn’t required to mount a defense, nor to prove anything. Only the prosecution must prove its case–a case of premeditated first-degree murder.
But Wood did explain why Johansen, 39, had lied to the 911 dispatcher, to deputies who showed up at the scene, to detectives who interviewed him subsequently, and to his own parents, claiming to them all that Celenza had shot herself.
He’d lied, Wood said, because Johansen didn’t want to let on that he and Celenza had done meth.
Wood said Johansen would take the stand in his own defense–another surprise: defense attorneys generally prefer that their clients not testify, since they expose themselves to the prosecution’s cross-examination. In this case, Johansen would possibly have to withstand the cross-examination of Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis, who approaches hostile witnesses with the deference of a jackhammer assaulting concrete.
Lewis is prosecuting the trial with Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Dunton, who was first with the state’s opening argument. The account she presented to the jury was radically different from the one Wood did, though Dunton’s account is much closer–and at times identical–to documented accounts that have accumulated in the court record so far, especially through interior surveillance video clips.
The account was graphic, grim and violent. Dunton started it with intentional bluntness, quoting Johansen’s own words as caught on surveillance video:
“I’ve got to get away from you or I’m going to kill you. You have to tell me when you’re masturbating when I’m gone or I will kill you. You’re a fucking whore. I’ll teach you to fuck around again. Call 911 bitch and get me out of here or you aren’t waking up.”
“Those,” Dunton told the jury, “were the words of this defendant two days before his wife, Brandi Celenza, was found shot and killed in their home in their master bedroom. Those threats to kill were captured on their home surveillance system. On a camera. In their bedroom, on April 7th.”
That was at 23 Felter Lane. It was mere minutes earlier that Brandi had contacted her older sister to set up their date at the county fair. At 10:37 a.m., Johansen called 911, claiming that set of lies he has now abjured.
The entirety of Dunton’s opening was based on Johansen’s previous narratives, underscoring to what extent she and Lewis would have been surprised by Wood’s new account. That account is intended to deflate the duplicity Dunton was pointing to in Johansen’s call to 911, the way he claimed he was tending to his wife even as he was running around the living room, hiding pot and other evidence that could incriminate him in cops’ eyes. Wood’s new approach is also intended to disarm the heart of the prosecution’s case–the alleged premeditation behind the killing, and the copious video record of Johansen’s brutal recriminations against his wife. Arguing self-defense, in other words, is a maneuver seeking would circumvent much of the state’s case–assuming the jury buys the theory.
Circuit Judge Chris France had yet to rule on a key motion immediately before the trial started this morning. The defense wanted to prevent that series of video clips from being shown to the jury. The clips are explicit, in language and sexual content as Johansen repeatedly threatens to kill Celenza, mutilate her, beat her: “I want to just hurt you and leave the state,” he tells her. “Are you afraid yet Brandi? Because you are going to be.” He insinuates that she has cheated with him with a Black man, but refers to the man in the vilest terms, using the N-word.
The fact that the defense today renewed its objection to the clips suggests, however subtly, that the defense is not as confident of its new theory as it appears: the clips would be irrelevant if self-defense were as convincing a defense as Wood wants it to be. “We stand by the objections as stated,” Wood said, as previously argued in a motion. (That part of the trial took place before the jury was brought in.)
“This court should disallow the video recordings or testimony of salacious acts and/or pornographic sex acts between the Defendant and his wife, and/or  verbal arguments between the Defendant and his wife, as the recorded evidence holds no evidentiary value to the crime as charged…,” the defense
The defense objected to 10 clips. The prosecution agreed to remove one of them–the one showing Johansen in a racist light. Johansen insinuates in the clip that Celenza has cheated on him with a Black man, but refers to the man in the vilest terms, using the N-word.
France overruled the objection with one exception: a clip where Celenza is masturbating. Lewis challenged the ruling, saying the clip had been redacted in such a way that the act itself would not be visible to the jury, and that the clip was important because Johansen is heard and seen making a direct, lethal threat against Celenza. He offered to show the judge the clip in a sidebar. So the attorneys and the judge–like referees reviewing a challenged play in an NFL game– huddled, watched the clip, and the judge reversed his own objection, to Wood’s dismay.
The clips are expected to show the jury, graphically, Johansen speaking the words Dunton quoted him saying in her opening arguments. The defense does not have an answer, other than Johansen’s word–a word he has broken to law enforcement and to his own parents, and is now asking the jury to believe, if he is to overcome the first-degree murder charge.
One of those jurors–the youngest one on the panel, its only full-time college student who was also employed at a local grocer–was removed and excused after falling asleep in the first half of the afternoon session.