Since Chris Brown's arrest nearly three months ago, his normally loquacious attorney has not said a word in public about how he plans to answer charges that the singer beat and choked his pop star girlfriend, Rihanna. But comments by the attorney in court Wednesday suggested part of the strategy might be attacking police for the leak of a photo showing Rihanna's bloodied, bruised face.
Defense lawyer Mark Geragos told a judge he planned to request information about possible police misconduct or bias and mentioned by name an appellate court ruling that provides defendants access to files in internal police investigations related to their cases.
Geragos, whose unwavering "no comment" in the Brown matter is in marked contrast to his media-friendly handling of other high-profile cases, did not elaborate and declined to speak outside the courthouse. But his remarks seemed a clear reference to the probe sparked by TMZ.com's posting of a photo of Rihanna. Los Angeles Police Department investigators have been interviewing their own officers and scouring computers for two months to determine whether someone inside the agency sold or gave the photo to the gossip website.
A defense focus on the leak would compound the department's embarrassment over the apparent failure to safeguard sensitive evidence in a case that has attracted worldwide attention. A state law makes it a misdemeanor for law enforcement employees to profit by leaking confidential reports or images. Police Chief William J. Bratton has promised "a very painful experience" for any LAPD employee found to be involved in the leak.
"We are still following leads and the case is far from closed," said Deputy Chief Mark Perez, head of the LAPD's Professional Standards Bureau.
Investigators got a search warrant this week for a personal e-mail account with a possible connection to the photo, Perez acknowledged. He refused to say whether the address belonged to an employee of the LAPD or TMZ. The website has said it obtained the photo "legally."
Perez was dismissive of possible attempts to make the leak an issue in the case.
"It doesn't surprise me. Criminal defense attorneys do everything they can do to win a case, and distraction is one way to do it," Perez said.
But according to experts, the records sought by the defense could be useful at trial or in negotiating a plea deal.
"If one or more of the officers were paid for releasing this photo and they were the same ones that were investigating the case, it's highly relevant," said criminal defense attorney Dmitry Gorin.
A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office declined to comment on the potential role of the TMZ investigation in the case.
Brown pleaded not guilty to two felony counts earlier this month. The 19-year-old faces nearly five years in prison if convicted of assault and criminal threats in the Feb. 8 incident with Rihanna, 21, whose real name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty. She told a detective that she and Brown were arguing over text messages he had received from another woman as they drove away from a pre-Grammy party in his rented Lamborghini. According to an affidavit filed by the detective, Rihanna said Brown punched her in the face, bit her fingers and held her in a headlock until she nearly lost consciousness. She was later treated at a hospital for bruises and cuts.
Authorities are still gathering evidence, including records from Cedars Sinai Medical Center, according to a search warrant filed this month.
Brown did not attend the hearing before Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg, and his absence reduced the media presence to a handful of camera crews and fewer than a dozen reporters.
Those on hand learned that authorities have agreed to return jewelry Rihanna wore the night of the alleged attack.
The judge said a preliminary hearing would probably be held in June.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.