For a few days in the fall of 1977, the most-watched evening television program in southern Florida was neither a big-budget variety show nor a popular movie. It was a court trial -- the real thing.
The programs, including the testimony of a 15-year- old murder defendant, his conviction, and sentencing, gave thousands of people their first glimpse of justice in action.
Since then, dozens of court arraignments, trials, and appeals in Florida and in an increasing number of other states have been filmed and sound-recorded.
The opening of court proceedings around the country includes:
* Ten states that now have cleared the way for camera and tape recorder coverage in some, if not all, courtrooms, on a permanent basis.
* Sixteen states that have approved such coverage for an experimental period.
* A similar temporary authorization under consideration in at least 15 other states.
In California, for example, a one-year experiment involving all levels of the state's courts is set to begin on July 1.
Massachusetts, where cameras have been allowed in appeal proceedings since April 1 and in jury-waived trials since early May, is set to expand such coverage to all courtrooms on June 1, except in instances where the presiding judge feels that filming might not be in the best interest of justice.
Earlier this year similar experimental camera coverage began in Iowa and Nevada.
Despite continuing strong opposition from within legal circles, more attorneys as well as judges are supportive of giving film-and sound-recorded court coverage a try, under certain restrictions.
While most of those involved appear satisfied with the way the expanded media -- and thus public -- access to court proceedings has been working, it is still very much on trial.
The US Supreme Court is about to take what could be a hard look at the arrangement in an appeal by two Miami Beach policemen, convicted by a Florida court of burglary.
The defendants maintain that their right to a fair trial under the Constitution's Sixth Amendment and their right to "due process" under the 14th Amendment were abridged by the presence of the camera and recorders in the courtroom during the trial.
The justices of the nation's highest court agreed April 21 to hear the appeal at its sitting next fall.
The high court's decision, expected some time next year, will be the its first on cameras in the courtroom since 1965, when the justices overturned by a 5-to-4 vote a federal district court fraud conviction of Texas financier Billy Sol Estes.
The defendant, who later was found guilty of the same charges, had held his rights to "due process" of law had been violated in the first trial by the presence of a camera. His attorneys argued that cameras created confsion in the courtroom and interfered with the performance of both attorneys and witnesses.
While so-called pencil coverage of proceedings are permitted, filming and sound-recording are not allowed in federal courts.
A US Supreme Court ruling similar to that in the Estes case could jeopardize future coverage of the both civil and criminal trials in state courts, supporters of this open-court extension warn.
Although permission of the presiding judge is required in most states before filming or sound recording is permitted -- even under limited conditions -- in only a few is the approval of the defendant and lawyers for both sides needed.
The California experiment, which originally was scheduled to start June 1, was postponed a month to give officials more time to prepare for it. The state's judicial council, which oversees the court there, also modified the rules to permit either the defendant or prosecutor in criminal proceedings to block camera or sound recording.
This veto power in the hands of lawyers tends to diminish opportunities for court filming or taping, especially in cases of a sensational nature that might be of greatest interest to television or radio audiences.
Attorney Talbot D'Alemberte, of Miami, holds that neither side in a trial should have such right to say "no" to such coverage. Mr. D'alemberte's legal fight in behalf of the Post-Newsweek Corporation, owners of two Florida television stations, led to the opening of that state's courts to cameras.
"The judge is in the best position to decide whether the rights of anyone might be violated if the proceedings are filmed or taped," he says.
Mr. D'Alemberte agrees there are times when certain trials should be excluded , and he is confident that the judge involved will make such decisions with the greatest sensitivity.
The Florida attorney recalls that during the 1977 trial of teen-ager Ronald Zamora, whose defense was based on an inability to know right from wrong due to intoxication from watching hundreds of hours of TV violence, the nightly extended public television presentation of the trial drew more viewers than any program on the commercial channels.
He and other boosters of cameras in the court emphasize that this is not a disruptive influence on courts. If anything, he says, it may lead to "less confusion" -- especially when, as is almost always the case, there is only one TV camera allowed in the room and all other pictures are taken without extra lighting or flash bulbs from an unobstrusive area.
Because of the increased public accessibility to court proceedings through television and radio, those who might attempt to get into the court room and cause a mob scene at major trials tend to stay at home and watch.
"Reporters often cover trials by watching from the press room, and there is less going and coming in the courtroom," the Miami attorney notes.
Proponents of cameras in the court hail it as an important tool to help develop a greater public understanding of the American judicialsystem.
"Once cameras are established in courtrooms, juries and eitnesses will forget all about them," says Barbara Nelson, an aide to the special committee of judges , lawyers, and representatives of the media who helped develop regulations for a one-year test program in Massachusetts.
Here, as in other states where recording or filming of judicial proceedings are allowed, close-up filming of bench conferences between the attorneys and the judge and huddles between attorneys and their clients are forbidden.
In most states, the impetus for the camera and broadcast coverage has come from the state Supreme Court or its equivalent. But in California it is the judicial council, a 21-member panel composed of judges and others, which has taken the initiative.
California's one-year experiment is to be "monitored for impact" by a federally financed study project handled by a private firm, according to John Schulz, chief counsel of the special committee that recommended the expanded media access to court proceedings.
Unlike some other states such as Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Texas, where film and sound recording is restricted only to appellate proceedings, every court in California, at the individual judge's discretion, will be involve
While the American Bar Association remains opposed to filming or recording in the courts, as it has for the past 43 years, the New York Bar Association last January endorsed the process in both civil and criminal cases.
That state's highest court, however, has not yet gone along with the recommendation, although its chief justice, Lawrence H. Cooke, has said he tends to favor TV coverage. He holds that it would build public confidence in the courts.
In suggesting a go-slow approach, he warned that should a mistake be made, any move for greater visibility and understanding of the courts could be delayed , perhaps for years.
While the current wave of welcoming, or at least allowing, filming and taping of trials dates back to February 1956 in Colorado, the idea did not begin to really catch on until the late 1970s.
Besides Colorado and Florida, other stateswhere coverage by cameras is allowed at least to a limited degree and on a permanent basis include Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin, according to the Williamsburg-based National Center for State Courts.
In New Jersey, one of the states where filming and taping of judicial proceedings is "on trial," cameras returned to the courtrooms last year for the first time since 1937 when the ABA adopted its now-controversial canon of judicial conduct banning such coverage.
That action came in response to criticism of filming and broadcast of the trial and conviction, in a New Jersey courtroon, of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnap-killing of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh.
The news media was accused of "sensationalized coverage."
Critics of court filming and sound recording warn that it will tend to encourage histrionics on the part of the participants in trials and tend to turn lawyers, witnesses, and even judges into actors.
Questions raised include: Will the possibility of such coverage make potential witnesses reluctant to come forward or perhaps glamorize their testimony? Will jurors be influenced by the opinions of friends who see the trial on television? Will attorneys play to TV audiences to gain public opinion in favor of their client? Will judges, knowing they are being watched by thousands outside the courtroom, impose sentences that appeal to what the masses might want more than what the circumstances of the case might warrant?
Besides California, Iowa, Massachusetss, New Jersey, and Nevada, states where filming and sound recording of court proceedings has been approved on a temporary basis are Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
In New Mexico, however, neither guidelines nor a starting date has been set. And in both Montana and West Virginia, the test period is over. A decision to open courtrooms permanently in these state is still pending.