The Diana Inquest: A Case for Murder?

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Patrick Bar / Nice Matin / AP

Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed walk on a pontoon in the French Riviera resort of St Tropez in August 1997.

It was a short-lived victory. On Friday, Harrods boss Mohamed Al Fayed won a court battle that means a jury will preside over the inquests into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. But now it looks like the jury won't get to hear what he has to say. Al Fayed, who has long held that Diana and his son were murdered by British security services on the orders of Diana's former father-in-law, Prince Philip, was hoping he would finally get the chance to defend his claims to a jury of "ordinary people." At a preliminary hearing on Monday, however, Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, who will lead the inquests into the couple's deaths, said that the proceedings won't look at the murder allegations unless Al Fayed can come up with some evidence.

At the hearing in London, which will decide on the scope of the inquests and who can be called as witnesses, Butler-Sloss said Al Fayed had not provided "a shred of evidence" to support his conspiracy theory. "There are a large number of serious allegations being made," she said. "If there is no evidence to support them, I shall not present them to the jury because it would be my duty not to do so." But Al Fayed's lawyer, Michael Mansfield, said the millionaire had already given his evidence to the official British police investigation, which last year concluded the crash that killed Diana, Dodi and their driver in 1997 was an accident. When Butler-Sloss (who is hearing the inquest as assistant deputy coroner for inner west London after the High Court ruled she couldn't sit as deputy royal coroner) was told she already had the evidence she was asking for, she replied, "Ah."

According to Mansfield, the "starting point" would be Al Fayed's testimony that Diana told him she was afraid for her life. In addition, Mansfield wants the inquest to look into the rumor that Diana was pregnant when she died, why her body was embalmed and questions surrounding the blood samples taken from Henri Paul, the chauffeur who also died in the Paris crash, which showed him over the legal drinking limit. Mansfield also noted that letters sent from Prince Philip to Diana and from Diana to her former butler Paul Burrell would be key pieces of evidence. By the end of the day Monday, Butler-Sloss still hadn't ruled whether or not the evidence she has in her possession is enough to bring the murder allegations into the inquest.

Earlier in the day, Al Fayed's lawyers asked that the inquest, which was scheduled to start in May, be postponed until Oct. 1. In a written request to Butler-Sloss, Al Fayed's legal team said their expert witnesses have a "phenomenal amount of work" which they couldn't start until after the results of the police investigation were released in December. The extra six months would be "a pebble on the beach" compared with the 10 years everyone has been waiting for an inquest, Mansfield said. But Butler-Sloss wasn't swayed. "I would be very sad if I was obliged to delay the start of the main proceedings for another six months," she said. "I feel that would be very, very hard on the families."

Butler-Sloss also denied Mansfield's request that the inquest be moved to another, larger venue to accommodate the crowds of lawyers, press and members of the public. The preliminary hearings will continue tomorrow and are expected to last several days as Butler-Sloss decides what will be included in the inquest and draws up a witness list. Already it looks like more than 30 witnesses will be testifying, including some via video-link from Paris. And if Al Fayed gets his way, both Prince Philip and Prince Charles could be taking the stand. Whatever happens, this is bound to be a case that sets many precedents. "One of the unusual aspects of this case is the incredible length of time that's passed since the deaths, with everyone waiting for something to happen," says Michael Zander, professor emeritus of law at the London School of Economics. "And the number of witnesses involved is much larger than normal. But, then, there is no 'normal' when you're talking about Princess Diana."