By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
LONDON, April 7 -- After six months and almost 250 witnesses, the latest multimillion-dollar government investigation into the death of Princess Diana ended Monday with a jury concluding that her death was caused by the gross negligence of her speeding driver and pursuing paparazzi.
The jury found that Diana's chauffeur, Henri Paul, who had been drinking, and the photographers chasing her car into a Paris tunnel caused her "unlawful death," which is similar to manslaughter.
Two previous police investigations -- one French, one British -- concluded that the deaths were a tragic accident caused by reckless driving by Paul, who was racing away from the photographers. British taxpayers have paid more than $20 million for investigations into Diana's death.
Legal experts said it was possible but unlikely that this verdict could lead to further legal action against the paparazzi in the Aug. 31, 1997, crash. Paul and Diana's companion, Dodi al-Fayed, also died in the crash.
Princes William and Harry issued a statement that said they "agreed" with the verdicts and thanked the jury for its "thorough" work. They also expressed their "most profound gratitude to all those who fought so desperately to save our mother's life on that tragic night."
A decade after Diana's death, this at times sensational coroner's inquest brought back front-page headlines of Fayed buying Diana a $23,000 ring just before she died and testimony from his father, Mohamed al-Fayed, calling the royal family the "Dracula family" and accusing them of killing Diana, 36, and his son, 42.
As Fayed left the Royal Courts of Justice on Monday, after what he called a "disappointing" verdict, he said, "The most important thing is, it is murder."
Under British law, any unnatural or violent death must also be investigated by a coroner. But far from putting to rest rampant conspiracy theories about Diana's death, as many hoped it would, this inquest appears to have spawned more.
Coroner Scott Baker told the jury that it was "blindingly obvious" that former royal butler Paul Burrell did not give the court "the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Richard Dearlove, the former head of the MI6 intelligence agency, took the rare step of taking the stand to call accusations of a government plot to kill Diana "absurd."
Fayed, who owns the famous Harrods department store in London, used his day in court to say Diana was murdered because she was pregnant and planning to marry his son, a Muslim. He called Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, "Frankenstein" and a "Nazi."
"I am not the only person who says they were murdered," he said. "The verdicts will come as a blow to the many millions of people around the world who've supported my struggle."
Baker also told the jury that there was "not a shred of evidence" that Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, ordered Diana's death or that it was organized by MI6.
Lee Gledhill, a trial lawyer who specializes in coroner inquest law, said that because the death occurred in France, any further criminal or civil case would likely be filed there, and that if French authorities believed "there was sufficient evidence, they would have prosecuted by now."
Gledhill noted that it "might be close to impossible" to determine the negligence of individual photographers who chased Diana's Mercedes, even though this British jury concluded that "collectively" their pursuit contributed to her death.
Nine photographers were charged with manslaughter in France, but the charges were thrown out in 2002. Three were fined a symbolic amount of one euro each for invasion of privacy for taking pictures of the couple.
The verdict of "unlawful killing" was reached by nine of the 11 jurors; it could not be learned Monday why two dissented. The jury also said the fact that Diana and Fayed were not wearing seat belts contributed to their deaths.
"Over a hundred years later there are still conspiracy theories about Jack the Ripper and the involvement of the royal family or their circles," Gledhill said. "One hundred years from now people will be talking about conspiracy theories and the royal family and the death of Princess Diana."