R&B singer Chris Brown pleaded guilty Monday to assaulting his former girlfriend, the pop star Rihanna, in a last-minute deal that allowed him to avoid both jail time and another public airing of the domestic violence allegations that have damaged his clean-cut image and promising career.
The deal with prosecutors was finalized in the hours before a hearing at which Rihanna was to tell a courtroom packed with reporters and fans how Brown bit, punched and choked her after a pre-Grammy Awards party in February.
Under the terms of the agreement, Brown, 20, will be on probation for five years, attend a yearlong domestic violence prevention class and complete six months of what the judge termed "community labor" -- a more restrictive form of community service in which he will be required to perform such tasks as picking up trash or removing graffiti.
"He embraces this as an opportunity for him to get his life back on track," Brown's lawyer, Mark Geragos, said after the hearing.
Before his arrest, Brown and Rihanna, whose real name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty, were the music industry's hottest couple. But the night before the Grammy Awards, police found Rihanna bruised and bloodied on a Hancock Park side street. She alleged that Brown attacked her in a rented Lamborghini during a quarrel over text messages that he received from a former lover.
Two weeks later, the gossip site TMZ.com posted what appeared to be a police photo that showed Rihanna with cuts and bruises on her face. The picture of the Cover Girl cosmetics model looking like a boxer after a fight increased public outrage.
Brown's lawyer said later that the performer had wanted to "take responsibility" for the altercation for months, but listened to the advice of his legal team to let the case work its way through the system. Brown wanted people to know that domestic violence was "not acceptable," he said.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg issued a "stay-away" order that bars Brown from contacting Rihanna or coming within 50 yards of her. Rihanna, who appeared briefly before the judge, said through her lawyer that she opposed the protective order as too strict.
"They do attend numerous industry events at the same time and the same place," lawyer Donald Etra said.
The judge agreed to relax the order to a 10-yard buffer at parties and other public events, but said that the protection was "appropriate" and that Rihanna could ask for it to be dropped at a later date.
A phalanx of paparazzi and fans greeted Brown with flashbulbs and shrieks as he arrived at the downtown courthouse. The singer, known for his soulful hits and head-spinning dance numbers, rushed by with a solemn expression. As he waited at the defense table to enter his plea, he bowed his head and folded his hands as if in prayer. His mother, who he has said was beaten by his stepfather, sat in the front row.
He will serve his probation and community service in his native Virginia, where he owns a home, the judge said. "I think it's commendable you took responsibility for your conduct," the judge told him.
The moment Brown was dismissed from the courtroom, Rihanna entered. The singer listened to the judge explain the protective order.
"Thank you," she said.
Outside the courthouse, Etra said she had come expecting to take the stand.
"She would have told the truth about what happened," her lawyer said. Instead, prosecutors summoned her to their offices and laid out the terms of the plea deal they were considering. "Rihanna was advised of the agreement and did not object," Etra said.
A second felony charge, making criminal threats, was dropped. Brown faced a maximum sentence of nearly five years in prison. But since he had no prior criminal record, he was unlikely to see prison. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said Brown's sentence was consistent with those for other first-time offenders accused of similar crimes and that the six-month sentence of "community labor" amounted to 1,400 hours. "The sentence is not an easy sentence," Sandi Gibbons said.
Legal experts said the deal was in line with those reached in other cases. Dmitry Gorin, a former deputy district attorney who handled such cases, said the sentence "was not unreasonable" for a defendant with a clean record. He said that although jail sentences often strike the public as tougher, they can be misleading in practice in the county's overcrowded facilities.
"I have had clients want to do the jail time [because] they know the jails are overcrowded and they won't serve anything like the sentence," he said.