Diana inquest lays blame on driver and paparazzi

Alan Cowell

LONDON: After six months of hearings and testimony by 278 witnesses, a jury at a British inquest found Monday that Princess Diana and her lover, Dodi al-Fayed, were unlawfully killed by the negligent driving of their chauffeur and photographers who pursued the couple’s speeding Mercedes into a Paris underpass more than a decade ago.

Since then, the case has seized attention in Britain and around the world, with rumors, conspiracy theories and allegations about the road crash in August 1997 that extinguished the life of a woman described by Tony Blair, the former prime minister, as the “people’s princess.”

The 9-2 majority verdict said the crash “was caused, or contributed to, by the speed and manner of the driver of the Mercedes and the speed and manner of the following vehicles.”

Coming one year after Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles in 1996, her death inspired a wave of soul-searching among Britons that threatened to dissolve the longstanding bonds between them and the monarchy. Indeed, the royal family’s reclusive and stand-offish behavior in the first few days after Diana’s death seemed to set Queen Elizabeth II apart from many of her subjects caught up in an uncharacteristically public display of mass grief.

Even in death, Diana has remained a focus of fascination and her destiny has been the object not only of books and newspaper articles but also a series of official investigations costing some $20 million.

A British police inquiry in 2006, for instance, found that Diana and Fayed had died in an accident as they sought to escape the attentions of the paparazzi photographers camped outside the Ritz Hotel in Paris owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, Dodi’s father. On the night they died, Diana and her lover were traveling to Dodi al Fayed’s apartment in a Mercedes driven by Henri Paul, a Ritz employee.

Fayed long insisted that his son and the Princess had been killed in a conspiracy by the British security services acting under instruction from Prince Philip, the queen’s husband. The judge presiding at the inquest, Scott Baker, had ordered the jury to discount those allegations.

The jury’s verdict Monday – tantamount to manslaughter – was the toughest judgment available to the panel of six women and five men, who began to deliberate their decision April 2.

The verdict surprised some people who had forecast that the inquest would confirm the previous police assessment that the crash, which also killed Paul, the driver, had been an accident.

Among the causes of recklessness, the panel found that Paul’s judgment had been impaired by alcohol. Paul was the deputy head of security at the Ritz and had been off duty for several hours when he was called back to the hotel to drive Diana and Dodi al-Fayed. Evidence at the inquiry showed that he had been drinking when he set out to drive the couple.

Other contributing factors, the jury found, included the fact that Diana, in the rear of the car with Fayed, had not been wearing a seat belt and that the Mercedes slammed headlong into a pillar when it crashed after entering the Alma underpass at over 95 kilometers per hour, or 60 miles per hour – twice the speed limit for that section of road.

Mohamed al-Fayed, who had pressed for years for a public inquiry, said he was disappointed at the result of the inquest, insisting that members of the royal family should have been called as witnesses.

“I have always believed that Prince Philip and the Queen hold valuable evidence that only they know. No one should be above the law,” he said in a written statement that suggested he had not abandoned his belief that Diana was murdered.

“I’m not the only person who said they were murdered. Diana predicted that she would be murdered and how it would happen,” said Fayed, who owns the Harrods department store in London. The royal family made no immediate comment on the verdict.

Apart from considering the exact circumstances of Diana’s death, the inquest also shone an unforgiving spotlight into details of her private life that had been previously been kept secret. The jury heard details of Diana’s contraceptive methods, her lovers and purported intimate conversations relayed by her onetime butler, Paul Burrell. The inquest also offered Mohamed al-Fayed a platform to taunt the royal family, calling Prince Charles’ second wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, a “crocodile wife” and labeling Prince Philip a “Nazi” and “racist.”

Highly unusually, members of the MI6 secret service were called to testify that they had not mounted a conspiracy to assassinate Diana. Mohamed al-Fayed has frequently insisted that Diana was pregnant by his son and was killed to prevent her from bearing the child of a Muslim. But Lord Scott Baker said the theory was “without substance.”

The start of the inquest was delayed until French legal processes were complete and the British police inquiry had reached its separate findings. Charges of manslaughter in France were brought against nine photographers who pursued the Mercedes and took photographs after it crashed. None of those paparazzi were found guilty in the manslaughter proceedings but three photographers were convicted in 2006 of invading privacy.

In December, 2006, a British police inquiry found that the deaths had been an accident. “Our conclusion is that, on the evidence available at this time, there was no conspiracy to murder any of the occupants of the car,” John Stevens, who led the inquiry, told reporters at the time. “This was a tragic accident.”

On Monday, the jury’s finding raised the question of whether criminal charges against the paparazzi could be revived. However, Stevens said he hoped “everyone will take this verdict as closure.”