“Listen, I know this is a tough day for you,” Flagler County Sheriff’s detective George Hristakopoulos was telling Keith Johansen toward the end of a 12-hour interrogation three and a half years ago. Hristakopoulos and his colleague Nicole Quintieri were pleading with Johansen to come clean about the shooting that had left his wife dead hours earlier. Johansen had shot her. But he was claiming he had no idea how she was shot, that it must’ve been an accident, or a suicide. “Hopefully this is the worst day of your life,” Hristakopoulos told him.
It wasn’t. Today is. Johansen this evening was sentenced to life in prison without parole by Circuit Judge Chris France, immediately following the conclusion of a four-day trial.
A jury of eight men and four women took just shy of three hours to find 39-year-old Johansen guilty of first degree, premeditated murder in the shooting death of Brandi Ruth Celenza, 25, the morning of April 7, 2018, at the couple’s Felter Lane house in Palm Coast.
A dozen family members and friends of Celenza had sat the whole day on one side of the courtroom. Some of them had sat through the entirety of the trial, including Celenza’s father. Three members of Johansen’s family sat on the opposite side of the courtroom, behind the defendant’s table.
Several cried when the jury was read. Johansen’s family and friends had not returned for the verdict.
Johansen himself showed no emotion. As soon as the guilty verdict was read, he sprang both his fists forward, presenting them to the bailiff next to him, to be handcuffed.
Johansen through his attorney, Garry Wood, and his own testimony, had claimed self-defense, that his wife had become delusional from binging on meth for 10 or 12 days, that she called him “plastic” and not real, that she swung a loaded gun at him and he fired–twice–killing her with the second shot.
The prosecution–Assistant State Attorneys Jennifer Dunton and Jason Lewis–ridiculed a defense that had emerged only this year, after Johansen had claimed to detectives and to his parents that he had nothing to do with the shooting, that maybe Celenza was suicidal, maybe the neighbor did it, maybe the 6-year-old did it–all scenarios he floated at one time or another, pinning the shooting on the boy he called his son in a conversation with his own mother, from the county jail. His mother didn’t buy it. His father didn’t buy his other theories.
Today, the jury didn’t buy the self-defense claim, either, a claim Johansen himself unraveled for the jury in lengthy, clinical, unemotional testimony on Wednesday, when he never spoke a word of regret or sorrow either at his wife’s death or at her son being orphaned.
Less than half an hour before the shooting Celenza was lovingly speaking to her 6-year-old son as she drank coffee and he had a bowl of cereal. She was standing at the dining room table, telling him about plans to go to the Flagler County fair, which was in its next-to-last day that Saturday, with her older sister, the boy’s aunt. Her son moments later, playing with a towel, tells her: “I love you. I do.” She tells him she loves him back. Those could have been the last words mother and son exchanged, captured, like so much else, on interior surveillance video.
A few minutes later two older people, religious solicitors, ring the doorbell. Celenza opens the door. She speaks to them kindly, takes their literature, as the older man says he mistook her for a 14 or 15 year old. Celenza picks up and brings in her cat that had slipped out. At 10:33, Johansen is seen picking up his jeans from the living room. A minute later Celenza reappears, walks to a stand in the living room, crouches down, then goes back to a bedroom.
Three minutes later Johansen is calling 911, claiming his wife had shot herself. It was the first of three-and-a-half years of lies.
“Every word that comes out of this defendant’s mouth is a lie,” Lewis had told the jury in the prosecution’s second closing. Dunton had done the first, a more methodical recap of the witnesses, the evidence, Johansen’s contradictions, evasions and evolving stories, in interviews or on the stand: she’d show video clips of Johansen’s threats, freeze-frame him and imprint his words in the jury’s mind through repetition, and by flashing the words transcribed on overhead screens. She was setting the table for Lewis’s more visceral approach.
“He’s a compulsive liar who lied, lied, lied, 10 times, 15 times, 20 times, 50 times, over 100 times in that timeframe to the police, to his parents.” Lewis continued. “You can’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth. And why do people lie? We all have life experience. We all know why people lie. It’s to cover up the truth. And the flat truth is, on that date in April, on that day, this defendant decided he was done with Brandy and he was going to kill her. That’s why he lied. And Mr. Wood would want you to believe that the state is restricted to that three-minute window to establish all the evidence to show you his premeditation.
“Well, that’s wrong. That’s not the law. The judge never told you: restrict yourself to that three minutes. Your job is to look at all the evidence. Your job is to look at his mindset starting 36 hours before, where he decided he was going to kill his wife. Maybe he didn’t do it that night. But guess what was festering underneath his skin. Guess what was mad and hostile and angry. He hated her. She cheated on them. She masturbated without him. He was so angry that he threatened multiple times to kill her. Mr. Wood would have you believe in arguments with regular people that that’s what they do. Do regular people threaten to kill their spouse, their boyfriend, girlfriend, multiple times? Do they say you have to walk down the street strapped, you’d better make sure you have a gun on you? Do they tell you you’re not going to wake up in the morning?”
Lewis was describing what the jury had seen and heard in several video clips from indoor surveillance–Johansen relentlessly demeaning and threatening his wife the night of April 5 for hours on end in their bedroom as she sat or balled herself up on the conjugal bed, almost entirely passive, at times weeping or sobbing under Johansen’s assault.
“Do regular people pick up a gun that is loaded and they throw it at their wife and tell them to shoot themselves? Is that what regular people do in arguments? I don’t think so, ladies and gentlemen, and what you get to weigh in this case, Mr. Wood trying to say there’s no evidence. So let’s go through what the evidence is and how you get to get to the point of the insurmountable evidence in this case.”
Before closing arguments today, the morning was dominated by a blustery proxy war between the attorneys through their expert witnesses. The defense had called on Daniel Buffington, a pharmacological expert, to buttress the defense’s claim that meth could lead to delusions. The prosecution called on Bruce Goldberger, a physician, a pathologist, and the director of the University of Florida’s toxicology lab at the College of Medicine, to put the generalization in its proper context.
Wood’s approach by way of Buffington applied a classic, fallacious syllogism: people who do meth can be delusional. Celenza did meth. Therefore Celenza was delusional. To get there, Wood had stated as fact in his opening argument, unsupported by any evidence, that Celenza had binged on meth and stayed awake 10 days or more. He asked Buffington if that was a symptom of meth use. “Seven, eight, ten days without sleep?” Wood asked.
“Sure, even longer,” the doctor said–a remarkable assertion, given the reality: the longest-ever documented evidence of a person staying awake, in a controlled experiment, was 11 days. Goldberg almost ridiculed the assertion: “Not like seven days or 10 days, they may go one or two days without sleep,” he said, and in his work, he’d not seen that as an issue.
Both Buffington and Goldberg, like the medical examiner in a previous testimony, agreed that the levels of methamphetamine and amphetamine found in Celenza’s blood in the toxicology report were nowhere near levels that would cause someone to lose control of faculties, be delusional, be aggressive, as Lewis tried to impress on the jury.
“She was not hallucinating. She was not out of control. Nothing,” Lewis told the panel. “What’s even better ladies and gentlemen, y’all have eyes. You watched those videos. Is there anything in her actions, in her words, that indicate someone who’s hallucinating? Did you see her point to the green Martian? Did you see her do backflips? Did you see her jump on the ground to avoid the tiger running at her? No, because it’s not true.”
Wood was also asking the jury to believe that for all the video evidence available, evidence that Wood relied on, for all the footage captured over the days in question, for all the witness evidence–Brandi’s friend, the neighbors, contact with Brandi’s sister–that somehow not a single moment of her acting delusional or psychotic, during this 10 to 12-day meth binge, was ever seen. “You have so much that is not there,” Wood said in his closing to the jury, to press his case for reasonable doubt. He was right. But the words applied more to Johansen’s claim that Brandi was delusional than to Wood’s claim that his client was acting in self-defense.
Wood was asking the jury to believe the man making the only claim of a delusional act in this ordeal–the one man who, of all the evidence and witnesses in this case, is the only person to have revealed himself to be a pathological liar. The only man to have made death threats against Brandi. The only man to have handled a gun, on camera. The only person who is seen compulsively smoking meth the night of April 5, which would suggest that, if anyone might have been delusional, it was Johansen.
At the 80-minute mark of deliberations the jury had three questions about “reasonable doubt.” Through a written note sent the judge, the jury asked whether Celenza’s fingerprints were on the gun she is alleged to have swung at Johansen (fingerprints were never introduced as evidence).
More alarmingly, they asked whether the fact that there is no video or eyewitness to the shooting, other than the defendant, amounts to reasonable doubt, a question Lewis had anticipated and answered forcefully and explicitly during his closing: “You get to rely on circumstantial evidence,” he told the jury. “Circumstantial evidence goes toward the circumstances of the crime. Right? We have to look at all those circumstances because if you go by what the defense argues, if there’s not a video or an eyewitness, we never know what happens. We can’t convict people. We couldn’t convict a murder. If you kill someone in private, according to the defense’s argument, you can’t convict them unless you have a video or an eyewitness or a confession. Well, I’m here to submit to you, that’s patently false. You get to look at all the circumstances of the crime to see whether or not they indicate to you that he committed the crime.”
The third question was a variant on the second, but more pointed. It was revealing of the jury’s–or at least some jurors’–position, and it did not bode well for the prosecution: “If we do not know if she had ever had possession of the gun in those three minutes the murder happened, is that reasonable doubt?” The question lent the sort of credence to Johansen’s self-defense claim that the prosecution spent two and a half days trying to demolish. It clearly suggested that there were jurors willing to believe Johansen’s testimony.
Jury questions aren’t revealing of how many jurors are asking the question. The jury could be hung on one or two outlying jurors whose questions aren’t being answered, or whose doubts are preventing them from joining the majority: a majority confident in its judgment or interpretation would not feel compelled to ask questions. Posing the questions to the judge is a way to get a more authoritative answer and perhaps win the outliers over. Several times in recent trials questions from the jury were followed somewhat swiftly with a verdict.
“You know, honestly, fortune favors the bold but this borders on stupid,” Adam Stone, an analyst on CourtTV, which broadcast the trial in its entirety, said earlier this week of Johansen’s new defense strategy. “The transition to go from suicide to self defense. It’s such a logical leap that I’m not sure any juror in their right mind could believe that kind of story. He’s going to have to be overwhelmingly convincing, put on an Orson Welles style testimony in order to get them to believe something like that.”
The performance Keith Johansen put on was vintage Keith Johansen.
- After Lying to Cops, EMTs and His Own Parents About Killing Brandi Celenza, He Takes the Stand to Say He’s Now Truthful
- Keith Johansen Springs New Defense in Gunning Down of Wife Brandi Celenza: ‘Self-Defense’
- Jury Seated in Keith Johansen Trial, With Key Ruling on Admissibility of Incendiary Video Evidence Still Pending
- Keith Johansen’s Defense Wants to Keep Out Evidence of His Racist and Sadistic Threats Before Shooting Death of Wife Brandi Celenza
- Judge Sets Stern Ground Rules Ahead of Keith Johansen Murder Trial in Shooting Death of Brandi Celenza