British inquest into Diana’s death resumes with princes’ plea for quick conclusion

LONDON (AP) – The British inquest into Princess Diana’s death in a 1997 car crash in Paris resumed Monday with a plea from her sons that conclusions be reached quickly.

“It is their desire that the inquest should not only be open, fair and transparent but that it should move swiftly to a conclusion,” according to a letter from Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, private secretary to the princes, which was read at the opening session.

Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a retired senior judge and member of the House of Lords, presided at the preliminary hearings at the Royal Courts of Justice, which concentrated on procedural issues. She ruled that all sessions would be open to the public, and that the deaths of Diana and her friend Dodi Fayed would be examined together.

Queen Elizabeth II sided with Fayed’s father, Mohamed al Fayed, in urging that a jury if called should be made up of members of the general public. Because Diana was buried as a royal, normally an inquest jury would be made up of royal household members.

Fayed has accused the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, of orchestrating a plot to murder Diana and Fayed. A police inquiry published last year concluded that there was no murder conspiracy, and that the deaths were accidental.

In a letter to the court, the queen’s lawyer, Sir John Nutting, said a royal jury should be avoided “to avoid any appearance of bias in consideration of the issues which such an inquest would be bound to consider.” Butler-Sloss concurred.

“I think that’s one decision I can make today,” Butler-Sloss said. “I think it entirely inappropriate for me to ask for a jury from the royal household.”

She reserved a decision, however, on whether to have a jury or to hear the case by herself.

The full inquest, which was swiftly adjourned in 2004 shortly after it began, is expected to take place later this year, nearly a decade after the couple were killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel. The inquest was put off until the French investigations were completed.

The two-year French investigation, a three-year Metropolitan Police inquiry and repeated legal action by al Fayed have delayed the inquests by nearly a decade.

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

Diana’s former private secretary, Patrick Jephson, said Monday that he hoped the inquest would put an end to conspiracy theories.

“At its best the inquest will show us that this sad matter is now settled and that we can concentrate on remembering the princess in an entirely positive light as Princes William and Harry obviously want us to,” Jephson told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Al Fayed, who owns Harrods department store, pressed the British authorities to hold Monday’s hearings in public and had threatened legal action if they did not.

Diana’s sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale was in court, as was al Fayed.

The early hearings were originally going to be private, but Butler-Sloss decided otherwise, saying public interest in the case was overwhelming. Nearly 70 seats have been reserved for the media. An additional 50 seats have been set aside for the public, who will have to line up to see the early proceedings.

Late last year, a sweeping British police inquiry dismissed allegations that the princess was the victim of a murder conspiracy. The inquiry, headed by Lord Stevens, the former chief of the Metropolitan Police, said the chauffeur in the 1997 crash was drunk and driving at a high speed to elude pursuing photographers. Stevens’ report largely confirmed previous findings by French investigators.

When the full inquest begins, Stevens’ report “will assist in identifying the scope,” according to the inquest’s Web site, but Butler-Sloss will assess what evidence is relevant and which witnesses to call.

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

Al Fayed rejected Stevens’ report, calling it a cover-up.

“For nine years I have fought against overwhelming odds and monstrous official obstructions. I will not stop now in my quest for the truth,” he said in a statement.

On the Net: Lord Stevens’ report: Inquest home page: