Since the explosion of gossip blogs and the resurgence of celebrity magazines, L.A.'s courthouses have grown used to accommodating throngs of paparazzi, videographers, camera crews and reporters who trail the famous to their dates with infamy.
But the crowd expected at this afternoon’s preliminary hearing for R&B; singer Chris Brown will be on a different order. Fifty-two media outlets have asked to attend the proceeding, far more than were on hand for Paris Hilton’s re-jailing, Britney Spears’ divorce, the DUI cases of Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie, or the murder trials of Robert Blake or Phil Spector.
“I’ve never seen this kind of interest, and I’ve been here seven years,” said court spokesman Allan Parachini.
Brown, 20, and his alleged victim, the glamorous 21-year-old pop princess Rihanna, are superstars to the young demographic most interested in celebrity news. Their romance was tabloid fodder before his February arrest for allegedly beating and threatening her during an argument in his rented Lamborghini. The altercation occurred as the couple drove home from a pre-Grammy party, and the news that Rihanna was injured and Brown wanted by police surfaced the next day as scores of celebrity reporters awaited the couple’s arrival on the red carpet.
“The way it broke -- so fast and so big out of the gate -- has a lot to do with [the public’s interest]. There was this big audience exposed to the story as it started,” said Ken Baker, E!'s executive news editor.
Since then, coverage has intensified, with breathless and often contradictory updates about trips to nightclubs, potential new love interests and the evidence in the court case, including text messages from another woman that reportedly triggered the quarrel.
“At the heart of it is this intense romance between these two beautiful people that went bad in this very public way. It has this raw, sensational drama to it,” said Baker, who will be in the courtroom for the proceeding.
The preliminary hearing promises something those covering the case could only dream about -- on-the-record sources sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Rihanna could testify, as could Hancock Park residents who witnessed part of the incident. The prospect of such testimony has attracted an array of organizations, from what the court spokesman called “the usual suspects” -- Us, People, TMZ.com -- to “German TV, the Mainichi newspaper from Tokyo, Australian radio, and a publication called Beauty & the Dirt.”
Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg denied requests for cameras for the estimated two-hour hearing, putting an even greater premium on the seats in her courtroom. To accommodate the media, court staff and entourages of up to 10 each for the prosecution, Brown and Rihanna, officials have set up a closed-circuit broadcast in a nearby courtroom for the overflow of press and the public.
The interest of the media seems inversely proportionate to the legal stakes of the proceeding. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to have a trial. Although the hearing resembles a trial with witnesses, evidence and summations, the defense has almost no chance of prevailing, because the burden of proof required -- probable cause -- is much lower than the reasonable-doubt standard for a conviction.
“It can be very perfunctory,” said veteran criminal defense lawyer Harland Braun, who is not involved in the case. “The preliminary hearing is really only to determine whether a crime was committed and whether the defendant is the person who is alleged to have done it.”
The preliminary hearing can provide both sides insight into the strength of witnesses. According to lawyers for Rihanna, whose real name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty, she was subpoenaed to appear and will be at the downtown courthouse and ready to take the witness stand when the hearing begins. But there is no guarantee that prosecutors will call her.
In preliminary hearings, unlike trials, investigators are permitted to summarize the accounts of witnesses in place of live testimony. Rihanna gave an extensive interview to a detective after the alleged assault, according to court documents. The officer could repeat to the judge her claims of a brutal attack that culminated in Brown choking her to the brink of unconsciousness.
What those gathered are unlikely to hear is Brown’s side of the story. The singer apologized after the incident and said he was seeking counseling, but he also hired a well-known lawyer, Mark Geragos, to fight the charges, two felonies that carry a maximum sentence of nearly five years in prison. Brown’s lawyer is permitted to call witnesses, but such a move is rare because it is unlikely to change the judge’s ruling.
“Even if there are two versions of events presented, the judge is still going to find there is probable cause” to move the case forward to trial, Braun said.