Judge in Diana Inquest: No Evidence of Murder

A coroner overseeing the inquest into the death of Princess Diana said on Monday she had seen no evidence of a conspiracy to kill the princess and her boyfriend.

Mohamed al Fayed, whose son Dodi Fayed died with Diana in a Paris car crash in August 1997, has long claimed that the couple were victims of an Establishment conspiracy.

In particular, he contends that Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was behind their deaths, and that it was carried out by British secret services. Philip has never commented on the allegations.

"There are a large number of serious allegations being made," said the coroner, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a retired judge. "At the moment, there is not a shred of evidence given to me about these allegations.

"Let me make it very clear — if there is no evidence supporting them, I shall not present them to the jury."

Butler-Sloss commented after a morning of legal arguments, during which al Fayed's lawyers also asked for a six-month delay in starting the inquest, citing the need to digest reports and prepare experts.

The request — echoed later by lawyers representing the family of chauffeur Henri Paul, who also died in the crash — received little sympathy from Butler-Sloss.

"I would be very sad if I was obliged to delay the start of the main proceedings for another six months. I feel that would be very, very hard on the families," she said.

Diana's sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, and Major Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, private secretary to Princes William and Harry, were in court to represent her family. Al Fayed sat on the other side of the small courtroom for the morning's proceedings.

Michael Mansfield, who represents al Fayed, contended that a six-month delay would be "a pebble on the beach" in the context of a 10-year wait to open an inquest.

Monday's hearing, at London's High Court, was originally intended to decide the scope of the inquest, determine which witnesses would be called, and demonstrate the virtual reality recreation of the crash scene which is to be used during the proceedings.

But much of the morning's business focused on arguments over when it should begin and even whether the courtroom set aside for the inquest was big enough for the crush of lawyers, media, and members of the public.

Mansfield also indicated that al Fayed's legal team wanted Prince Charles — Diana's ex-husband — and Prince Philip to give evidence at the inquest.

Butler-Sloss, who remains in charge of the case, had decided to conduct the inquest without a jury. A three-judge panel overturned that decision — after a challenge by al Fayed, and ruled a jury should deliver the verdict.

"I have no intention of ever appealing the decision," Butler-Sloss said.

Under British law, inquests are held when someone dies unexpectedly, violently or of unknown causes.

Diana, 36, and Fayed, 42, were killed along with chauffeur Paul when their Mercedes crashed in the Pont d'Alma tunnel on Aug. 31, 1997. The only survivor, bodyguard Trevor Rees — formerly known as Rees-Jones — was badly hurt.

A French investigation ruled that Paul was drunk and in his efforts to evade photographers, lost control of their car, which careened into a column in a tunnel.

The inquests could begin only after the investigations into the deaths were complete. A two-year French investigation, a three-year Metropolitan Police inquiry in Britain and repeated legal action by al Fayed have delayed the inquest.