Rihanna set to give US its latest courtroom fix

As her boyfriend, Chris Brown, goes on trial, America shows there's nothing it enjoys more than a celebrity in the dock, finds Guy Adams in LA

Roll up, roll up! With OJ behind bars and Phil Spector serving life for murder, the US legal system is about to raise the curtain on what promises to be its next great celebrity media circus: the prosecution of Chris Brown on charges of beating up his ex-girlfriend and fellow pop star, Rihanna.

The R&B singer will appear at Los Angeles Superior Court tomorrow morning for a preliminary hearing to determine whether he should face trial for an altercation that occurred in a rented Lamborghini car in the early hours of the morning of February's Grammy Awards.

Mr Brown stands accused of punching and threatening to kill Rihanna, whose real name is Robyn Fenty, before leaving her to be discovered by police, bloodied and bruised, by the side of a road in the city's Hancock Park district. If found guilty, he faces up to five years in prison.

Compellingly, in a case that has prompted unremitting media coverage, tomorrow's hearing will see Ms Fenty, 21, talk judge Patricia Schnegg through her recollection of the incident, which apparently occurred after she discovered a text message from one of Mr Brown's ex-girlfriends on his mobile phone.

The couple, who were on their way home from a showbusiness party, have both so far refused publicly to share their version of events. An affidavit from a policeman who interviewed Ms Fenty claims Mr Brown struck her several times, bit her, and tried to choke her, adding that the frenzied attack caused her mouth to fill with blood.

Television cameras have been banned from the courtroom. However, hundreds of journalists and members of the public are expected to turn up to see Ms Fenty, 21, explain how she sustained her injuries. A police photo taken after the incident, which was leaked to a tabloid website, showed her face bruised, swollen and covered in cuts.

Both stars have huge followings, and the charges, to which Mr Brown has pleaded not guilty, have prompted soul-searching about domestic violence and misogyny in hip-hop culture. Shortly after the incident, Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to spousal abuse, which she dedicated "to all the Rihannas of the world".

Womens' rights groups have been concerned by polling data which indicates that many young adults believe that Rihanna was to blame for the alleged assault. A recent survey by the Boston Health Commission revealed that 46 per cent of teenagers believed she was responsible.

Tomorrow's hearing allows Judge Schnegg to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for Mr Brown to stand trial in front of a jury. Ms Fenty has been subpoenaed to appear, and is likely to face questions from both prosecution and defence lawyers.

Legal experts expect the outcome to be a formality, saying they can see few circumstances in which a judge would not consider there to be "probable cause" for a trial to proceed. However, they expect the occasion to be used for PR purposes by Mr Brown's attorney, Mark Geragos.

"Geragos represented Winona Ryder during her shoplifting trial, and played to the media at a preliminary hearing, with vicious cross-examinations that tried to give a message to the world that his client was being railroaded," said Royal Oakes, a legal analyst for several US television news organisations.

"In a case like this, he could also use the hearing to serve a similar PR purpose for Chris Brown. The downside, of course, is that it can tip his hat and let the prosecution and witnesses know where he's going to come from during a trial."

Mr Geragos had already tried, unsuccessfully, to delay tomorrow's hearing until he had been granted access to police files about the officers who arrested Mr Brown. His camp has suggested that their client was a victim of LAPD officers hoping to exaggerate the incident so they could profit by leaking details to the media.

In the event that the case goes to trial, Mr Brown is likely to be offered a plea bargain, in which he'd face a reduced sentence of between two and three years in return for pleading guilty.

"This case screams out for a deal," Mr Oakes said. "Chris Brown's career will not benefit from the four to five years in prison he would face if convicted, and the pictures are so graphic that a full trial could be highly damaging to his reputation, whatever the eventual verdict."

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