In late 1979, Floridians watched on television as two Miami Beach police officers were tried and convicted of burglary. Two years ago, when a jury in Newport, R.I., found socialite Claus von Bulow guilty of attempting to kill his heiress wife, tens of thousands of Americans, many in distant states, saw and heard it all.
Early this spring, several million people from as far away as Japan witnessed the barroom rape trial of six Portuguese immigrants in Fall River, Mass.
While television cameras and tape recorders may never be as much a part of the courtroom scene as black-robed judges, their presence is becoming increasingly common.
Within the more than three years since the United States Supreme Court ruled that TV coverage of the Florida burglary trial did not impede the defendants' constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial, at least six major trials in state courtrooms from California to New England have received extensive live coverage.
Cable Network News (CNN), which devoted two to three hours a day to the Fall River rape trial, now has its live-camera sights focused on a two-part child-molestation trial beginning June 11 in Los Angeles. The coverage, if permitted by the presiding judge, could be controversial, since among the witnesses expected to be called are children allegedly abused by several staff members of a Manhattan Beach, Calif., preschool.
Thirty-eight states, most of them within the past four years, have cleared the way for such coverage of some courts on at least a temporary basis. And similar moves are under consideration in at least four other states.
Many judges, including Massachusetts Superior Court Judge William Young, who presided over the recent month-long Fall River trial, view the presence of television cameras as appropriate as long as it does not become disruptive.
But some critics say that no matter how unobtrusive cameras and microphones may be, they tend to distract from the proceedings.
The American Bar Association in 1982 softened its position from support of an outright ban of cameras in court to something closer to neutrality. But prospects for ABA endorsement appear remote. A panel within the organization, however, is exploring the possibility of uniform guidelines for such media coverage in states where it is permitted.
Encouraged by their increased access to various state courts, the nation's broadcasters are pressing to open the federal judiciary to similar coverage.
A special 15-member committee made up of federal district and appellate judges and appointed last summer by the Judicial Conference of the United States is studying the matter. Its recommendations are expected within the next few months.
Allowing cameras in federal courtrooms is in the public interest, asserts Larry Scharff, a Washington-based lawyer representing the Radio-Television News Directors Association, one of the petitioners for the rules change.
To help sell the idea and show how unobtrusive camera coverage in a federal courtroom would be, boosters of the proposal presented their case at a demonstration in an Atlanta courtroom Jan. 27. That was followed up by a series of forums on the issue. One of these, on May 14 in Indianapolis at a conference of judges in the Seventh Circuit, was also attended by US Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens. Neither justice, however, is a member of the Judicial Conference, which sets federal court rules and is chaired by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.
If the study committee, which is set to meet again May 30, recommends even an experimental relaxation of the camera ban, approval of the Judicial Conference would be needed.
''It is a mistake to assume that only the more sensational trials would receive camera coverage,'' says Washington, D.C., lawyer Timothy Dyk, who moderated the panel. He explains that a study by a Florida affiliate of his client, the Columbia Broadcasting System, showed that television coverage of court proceedings involved a wide range of cases and issues.
Opening of state courts to television, an issue still to be decided in at least a dozen states plus the District of Columbia, has thus far received its greatest impetus from within judicial circles.
Such coverage, first authorized in 1956 in Colorado by that state's Supreme Court, is almost always subject to permission on a case-by-case basis from the presiding judge. Lawyers for either side can object, but with few exceptions they cannot veto the presence of television cameras or tape recorders.
Critics of live coverage warn that the identity of crime victims, even if not called to testify, would not be adequately protected. During the Fall River trial in March, both the prosecution and defense lawyers in their opening statements mentioned the name of the young woman who was raped. This went out over television, and local newspapers then used the name.
Judge Young, who has vehemently defended the right of TV coverage of the proceedings, said the victim's name should not have come out and stressed that ''in the future I will be quick to prevent that from happening.''
Television crews have the capacity, through a seven-second delay mechanism, to delete brief segments, such as those in which the name of the rape victim is mentioned, explains Judy Borza of CNN.
Because of this, coverage of the Los Angeles child-molestation trial would pose no problem, she asserts. Seven people, some of them formerly connected with the Manhattan Beach preschool center, have been indicted on a total of 115 counts involving child abuse. At least several young children, including victims of the alleged molestation, are expected to be called to testify.
Of 38 states allowing for some presence of television, radio, and newspaper photography in the courtroom, only 21 have so far made such coverage rules permanent for both trial and appellate proceedings. Seven others allow taped coverage under temporary rules. Ten other states have opened the door, permanently or on an experimental basis, in appellate courts.