In a crowded county courtroom, Gene Leroy Hart -- bright and popular and a former high school football star -- went on trial today on charges that he killed three little Girl Scouts who were camping out near here in June 1977.

The trial follows the biggest manhunt in Oklahoma history and an investigation that bordered on comedy. It involves a sheriff seen by many people as vindictive and a former prosecutor who tried to turn the killings and Hart's arrest into higher political office (state attorney general) and personal gain (a book).

And so the arrest of Hart -- a Cherokee Indian who is also an escaped prisoner facing up to 305 years in jail -- has created feelings here almost as intense as the bloody and brutal killings themselves.

The are people in these wooded Ozark foothills of eastern Oklahoma, it seems, who don't feel that the law got the right man.

That opinion is rooted in personalities and local politics, in perceived prejudice against Indians as well as in the evidence itself.The result is an uneasy feeling that the real killer is still loose.

As a result, thousands of dollars have been raised toward Hart's defense, and smaller amounts have been left "at a certain fence row, at a certain place, at a certain time," as one man put it, to help Hart and his family in the 10 months between his first mention as a suspect and the day he was taken into custody.

Today, on the third floor of the Mayes County courthouse, Hart sat across from the six men and six women, none an Indian, who are to decide his fate.

The charges carry the penalty of death by lethal injection.

Death came not so medicinally for Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Michele Guse, 9, and Doris Denise Milner, 10, all of Tulsa. On June 13, 1977, while they were sleeping their first night at the Girl Scouts' Camp Scott near the tiny (pop. 166) town of Locust Grove, their tent was entered.

Early in the morning their bodies were found 150 yards away beside a tree. Two of them had been beaten to death, one had been strangled. Two had been raped. Their tent was ripe with blood.

And in the summer season, when young boys and young girls everywhere take to the wilds for summer camp, the killings were a national horror.

Pete Weaver, the 57-year-old Mayes County native who has been sheriff every term except one since 1969, launched an investigation with District Attorney Sidney Wise.

But even before any real evidence had been gathered, Wise was quoted as musing on the fact that Gene Hart's mother lived not far from Camp Scott. And Hart himself, convicted of four burglaries, had been running loose since 1973 when he became the first man to escape from Pete Weaver's jail.

Before the investigation and subsequent manhunt were over, two supersnooping bloodhounds had been flown to Oklahoma from Pennsylvania. One died of the heat and one was killed by a car.

Some 400 people would come from all over to hunt for Hart. Some were drunk, and others were arrested on marijuana charges. A group of Vietnam veterans from Tulsa, calling themselves "The Spooks," claimed they could find Hart in eight hours. They were given a chance, but they failed.

In the course of the investigation, authorities announced that an excellent set of fingerprints was found on one girl. It did not match Gene Hart's, and later the officials would say the only print really recovered was that of a policeman who had touched a photographic plate used in the fingerprint-taking process.

Eight days after the killings, authorities said they found two photographs in the woods in the general area. With Hart being mentioned even then as a possible suspect, lawmen set out to determine the origins of the photographs.

A day later, officials announced that the pictures were taken at a wedding ceremony several years earlier and were printed in a state prison photo lab by Gene Hart.

And so Hart was charged in warrants with the three killings.

"Watch those pictures," defense attorney Garvin Isaacs told the jury today in his opening statement. "They're going to tell you a lot. They are going to tell you Mr. Hart is innocent."

Sheriff Weaver declines to discuss whether the photos were among Hart's possessions when he was transferred here for a hearing from state prison in 1973. But it has been learned that Hart says the photos were left behind in his wallet when he sawed out of Weaver's jail on Sept. 16, 1973.

So the question: were they planted in the woods?

"He is innocent -- you won't find one person out of a hundred give any indication he did it," says John Mapp, the new owner of the Cookson Hills bar in Locust Grove, where a Gene Hart defense fund was formed by the previous owner. "It's a grudge. He out-smarted them, outfoxed them" by staying free for so long after his escape.

Mapp's comments reflect a broad sentiment among people here who have serious questions about the evidence and who think they know Gene Hart and Pete Weaver well.

Weaver is criticized as being anti-Indian, someone from the plains and the more white-oriented area of western Mayes County than those from the hilly and wooded and heavily Indian eastern part, like Locust Grove.

When prosecutor Sid Wise tried to turn this case into a run for state attorney general, he finished sixth in a field of six.

It was also revealed that Wise shared sensitive investigative reports with a former newspaper reporter with whom he was going to write a book about the killings.

The reporter, Ronald L. Grimseley, was hired as an election campaign worker and eventually ran a newspa per classified ad seeking investors in the book venture. The telephone number listed in the ad was at Wise's campaign headquarters.

Eventually Wise withdrew from the case, defeated in his attorney general bid and exposed in the book deal. The prosecution is now being handled by Tulsa's district attorney.

In its opening statement today the prosecution said it would prove through a chain of circumstantial evidence that Hart killed the three Tulsa girls. The case rests mainly on technical evidence that includes the photographs and hair samples taken from the crime scene.

Isaacs in turn argued that there is no way to link a given person to a crime through hair samples, and he hinted that evidence was planted to build a case around Hart and thus satisfy the pressures from Oklahomans and elsewhere in the nation to solve a crime that offended millions.