When socialite Claus von Bulow was convicted of twice attempting to kill his heiress wife, hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of people, were looking on and listening.
Television cameras and sound recorders were in the Newport, R.I., courtroom March 16 for the ''guilty'' pronouncement by the jury foreman, as they had been throughout the dramatic two-month trial. At least six television stations and the national networks had regularly provided excerpts of the proceedings on their evening newscasts.
In the von Bulow trial the judge denied a bid to exclude cameras and tape recorders. This cleared the way for what will probably be the big test of such coverage in Rhode Island, where a one-year experimental period is to end in October. The State Supreme Court justices then will decide whether to permanently open judicial proceedings -- both trials and appellate sessions -- to TV and newspaper cameras and radio microphones.
Such coverage, although a first in Rhode Island, now is allowed at least on an experimental or limited basis in 32 other states.
While hardly an established part of the American courtroom scene, cameras and tape recorders are increasingly on hand there. The Colorado Supreme Court opened the way for this coverage in 1956 when it ruled that it is up to a trial judge to decide whether he wishes to permit cameras and microphones in his courtroom.
Since courts are responsible for making rules covering their operations, most of the movement to clear the way for cameras and recorders has come from within the judiciary, rather than through statute.
Besides the 33 states where television coverage of court proceedings of one form or another is now allowed, one other -- Utah -- has admitted still cameras since April 1981.
Lawyers and judges remain split on the question, however. And in many states the decision to let cameras in is far from final.
Much could hinge on whether the American Bar Association (ABA), long a staunch foe of filmed or sound-recorded court sessions, relaxes its opposition.
Three ABA standing committees are currently working on a draft recommendation for amending the bar association's now 45-year-old Canon 35, which recommends that judges bar the use of cameras and broadcasting equipment in their courtrooms. Changes are expected to be considered at the group's annual meeting in August.
Canon 35 was adopted in 1937 in the wake of adverse criticism of still photography and voice recording during the New Jersey trial at which Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted of kidnapping the infant son of Charles A. Lindbergh. The bar association extended its policy to include TV cameras in 1952 . It rejected a proposal to amend its position in 1979.
Although declining to speculate what the committees might recommend, ABA staffer Richard Lynch notes that ''there has been a great deal of movement'' within the legal profession toward a less rigid stand.
The proposal being worked on would not endorse the use of cameras but would leave the question to court officials. TV, recorder, or still photography coverage would be permitted if ''consistent with the rights to a fair trial'' and if conducted ''in a manner that would be unobtrusive, would not distract the participants, and would not otherwise interfere with the administration of justice.''
Substantial opposition to even a modest ABA policy shift continues. This was evident in the results of a poll of American attorneys, published in the April edition of the American Bar Association Journal. Of those responding, 57 to 67 percent (depending on the region) generally opposed cameras in courts, especially during trial proceedings.
Regardless of whether the ABA softens its ''no cameras or recorders'' stand, there is nothing to suggest the trend toward allowing at least minimal presence of such coverage will not continue. Since January 1981, when the US Supreme Court declined to overturn the Florida burglary conviction of two police officers whose appeal was based on the presence of cameras in the court denying them a fair trial, 10 states have at least partially opened their judicial doors to such coverage.
Within the past two months, for example, experimental limited camera-in-courtroom coverage has begun, or been authorized, in Connecticut, Delaware, and Maine. And earlier in the year Oklahoma made permanent temporary provision for camera and sound recorded coverage of court proceedings.
Proposals for new or expanded live and still camera access to some, if not all, court sessions are pending in at least five other states -- Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, and South Dakota -- reports Jean Ito of the Williamsburg, Va., based National Center for State Courts.
New York State lawmakers, for example, are considering a measure that would clear the way for trial-court camera and recorder coverage which currently is restricted to appellate proceedings.
A similar measure is before legislators in Minnesota, where hearings are to begin in June. Cameras currently are restricted there, as they are in Delaware, Kansas, Idaho, New York, and North Dakota, to appeals sessions.
Of the 33 states with at least some television or still camera coverage of judicial proceedings, only 17 have made such arrangements permanent and most of them to only a limited extent, with the presiding judge having the final say.
In many instances, both sides in the litigation must also give their consent, a condition that has tended to restrict such coverage. Objections by the defense in last winter's Atlanta trial of Wayne B. Williams, who was convicted of murdering two young blacks, kept cameras out of that courtroom.
Thus far only two states -- Louisiana and Nevada, both of which permitted limited coverage in at least one court -- have ended the experiments without following it up by either an indefinite extension or permanent arrangement.
Critics of televised coverage of trials argue that even with improved equipment and techniques, the presence of cameras tends to be distractive to witnesses and jurors. Others object on the grounds that the extra dimension of attention puts them ill at ease.
Several states, which allow cameras at certain proceedings, forbid filming or focusing on the jury. In some states, like Tennessee, no picture can be taken showing any juror who wishes to avoid it, notes Charlotte Carter, counsel for the National Center for State Courts.
Those cool to camera coverage of judicial proceedings maintain that the process will tend to further sensationalize cases and accomplish little.
Boosters of the ''open door'' policy contend that on-the-spot television and newspaper photograph coverage of what goes on in courts will not only entertain but in the process lead to a greater appreciation of the administration of justice.
States where both cameras and tape recorders remain forbidden from all courtrooms are Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota , Vermont, and Virginia.