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Chris Brown & Rihanna: the Legal Battle Begins

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The timing couldn’t have been worse. On March 5 Chris Brown’s official MySpace blog screamed, “Vote for Chris Brown for Kids Choice Awards!”—a reference to the upcoming Nickelodeon event. That same day, the singer was appearing in a Los Angeles courtroom attending to some not-so-kid-friendly business: Brown was formally charged with two felony counts—assault and making criminal threats—stemming from an allegedly violent fight with Rihanna Feb. 8. Graphic details—including his biting and choking Rihanna, according to police—emerged from a search warrant affidavit released by the court (see box). Despite the threat of prison time if he’s convicted (a maximum of just under five years), a source close to Brown’s family says, “Chris is fine. He just wants to get through this.”

He’s not alone. Though Rihanna (who has been in L.A.) was not in court, her attorney Donald Etra appeared on her behalf and tells PEOPLE, “She wants this case to be concluded as fairly and expeditiously as possible. She wants to get on with her life and career.” But with many possible legal outcomes, it may be some time before Rihanna, 21, and Brown, 19, can move on. Instead of entering a plea, Brown’s attorney Mark Geragos asked for and received a postponement until April 6. While Geragos is known as a bulldog defense attorney, some legal experts say he’d go for a misdemeanor-only plea bargain. (Convicted felons are not allowed into some foreign countries, which could seriously curtail Brown’s future touring prospects.)

Geragos will spend the coming days assessing the prosecution’s case, which may rely heavily on Rihanna‘s testimony. “If she refuses to testify, [prosecutors] probably won’t be able to get in whatever statements she made to police,” says Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor who attended the March 5 proceedings at Geragos’s request. Etra tells PEOPLE Rihanna “will appear and testify” if she is subpoenaed by either side. But “common sense dictates that if they’re truly in love and fully back together, Rihanna is not going to come into court and testify that he beat her up,” explains L.A. criminal defense attorney Steve Sitkoff.

In the meantime, the court of public opinion has already come down hard on Brown. “If I hear a Chris Brown song, I immediately change the radio,” says Laredo, Texas, college student Catherine Archer, 20, a former victim of dating violence. Adds Karen Williams, 21, a Manhattan secretary: “He has music out right now, so I’m not going to buy any of that.” Several radio stations stopped playing his music, and even Oprah Winfrey, who is dedicating her March 12 show to dating violence, chimed in during her March 6 show: “I’ve been saying this to women for years: ‘If a man hits you once, he will hit you again.'”

Rihanna does not seem overly concerned for her safety. In court, her attorney told Commissioner Kristi Lousteau that the singer did not want a stay-away order for Brown, who was instead served with a light protective order prohibiting him from striking or threatening her—but allowing the couple to be together. Says a source who knows them socially: “They’re still in love.”

In fact, they’ve been together “nonstop,” says an insider—that is, when Brown hasn’t been working on his third album (due later this year) or shooting hoops with buddies. As for Rihanna, who continues to stay out of the public eye, “She’s doing all right,” fellow R&B star and longtime pal Shontelle tells PEOPLE. “She’s hanging in there and wants everyone to know she appreciates all the love and support.” But like many of Rihanna‘s fans, Shontelle is uncertain about whether Rihanna‘s relationship with Brown will last. “I don’t know,” she says. “We’ll see.”