Charges should not be filed against any of the photographers who chased the Mercedes sedan carrying Princess Diana to her death here two years ago, the French prosecutor's office said today.
Coming almost exactly two years after the Princess of Wales, her friend Dodi Fayed and chauffeur Henri Paul died when their vehicle smashed into a pillar in a highway tunnel along the Seine, the prosecutor's statement moved the extensive investigation closer to an end.
With ever more likelihood, the cause of the crash that killed the 36-year-old former wife of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, can be traced to Paul. The deputy director of security for the Ritz Hotel, he was a last-minute replacement as driver for Dodi Fayed and Diana that evening.
His blood alcohol level was more than three times France's legal limit; he had the equivalent of nine alcoholic drinks in his system as well as traces of antidepressant and a drug used to treat alcoholics. The leased Mercedes-Benz was traveling at an estimated 100 mph when it crashed at 12:25 on the morning of Aug. 31, 1997.
The investigation "could not establish a direct causal link between the behavior of the people placed under investigation and the loss of control by the driver of the vehicle that seems to be the determining cause of the accident," said the prosecutor's statement.
The two investigating magistrates in the case could reverse the prosecutors' recommendation and bring charges against the nine photographers and one motorcycle driver, but it is unlikely, lawyers for the photographers said.
"In the majority of cases, they follow the recommendation of the prosecutor," said lawyer William Bourdon, who represents photographer Nicola Arsov of the SIPA agency. "The investigation of the prosecutor was very careful."
The final report of the magistrates, Herve Stephan and Marie-Christine Devidal, is expected in about two weeks because Stephan is to leave his post then to become a judge for the Paris court.
The French press has speculated for some time that the photographers and motorcycle driver would not be charged with either of the offenses for which they have been under investigation: involuntary homicide and failure to offer assistance to a person in danger. But today's statement is the first official indication they will go free.
The paparazzi were tailing the Mercedes that night, and they do not deny that Paul was trying to elude them. But they have said they were far behind the vehicle and did not come upon it in the tunnel until after the crash.
The announcement "is what we have hoped for for a long time," said Michel Cabellic, assistant director of the photo agency Gamma, whose photographer Romuald Rat was among those investigated. Rat is relieved, Cabellic said, "not because he feared he would be charged but because of the length of the investigation."
Two years after the fatal crash, the Place de l'Alma above the tunnel remains a gathering place for tourists and admirers of the late princess. At a golden flame that is a reproduction of the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a small knot of people is almost always gathered. People still leave notes and flowers there.
If the final report clears the photographers and the motorcycle driver, it could still be appealed by Mohamed Fayed, owner of the Ritz and father of Dodi Fayed. He has offered various theories for the crash, including a conspiracy to prevent Diana from marrying Dodi. The younger Fayed had given the princess an expensive diamond ring, but it is not known whether they were engaged.
Mohamed Fayed said through a spokesman in London today that "the full facts have not yet emerged" and that "the ultimate decision to file charges will be made by Mr. Stephan."
In addition to the possibility of a Fayed appeal, the fourth passenger in the Mercedes and the crash's only survivor, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, has filed charges against the Ritz and the service that leased the Mercedes for "endangering the lives of others." Paul was not licensed to carry passengers in that type of vehicle.