Diana crash hearing puts photographer in the clear

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The Independent Online
EVIDENCE from the Ritz Hotel's own cameras has vindicated one of the paparazzi photographers accused by Mohamed Al Fayed of being vultures at the scene of the crash which killed his son Dodi and Diana, Princess of Wales.

The Harrods owner has maintained ever since the crash in Paris on 31 August that photographers chased the couple to their deaths. But at the eight-hour private judicial "confrontation" between the principal players in the Diana drama in Paris on Friday, it emerged that one photographer, Laslo Veres, was caught on film by the hotel's cameras at the time of the crash - proving he wasn't at the scene at the Pont de l'Alma, but arrived there later.

On balance the hearing seems to have gone well for most of the 10 paparazzi (nine photographers and one dispatch rider) who still face possible charges of manslaughter and failing to assist the victims of an accident.

This alone may explain the fury of Mr Fayed in mid-afternoon, when he emerged from the hearing to lay about him on all sides. (The photographers were "vultures" and "bastards"; Frances Shand Kydd, Diana's mother, was an "English snob".)

Judge Herve Stephan even hinted at one stage that, thanks to the Ritz cameras, the case against at least one of the photographers may shortly be dropped. Two other paparazzi - Christian Martinez and Romuald Rat - seem the most likely to face a formal charge of failing to assist people in danger. Three others also took scores of close-range pictures of the accident victims in the seven minutes before emergency services arrived.

The eight-hour hearing was an attempt to flush out inconsistencies by confronting the accused with the evidence of policemen, emergency workers and eye-witnesses. One witness, Jacques Morel, insisted that he had seen photographers waiting near the tunnel for the Mercedes to arrive; his testimony does not fit any of the established facts of the case.

There was only brief consideration of the ghostly white Fiat Uno which is believed by the investigators to have had a glancing collision with the Mercedes before it crashed. Two of the eight eye-witnesses present said they had glimpsed a car fitting that description; others had not.

Exhaustive police searches have failed to trace the car; Judge Stephan has now abandoned the hunt. Is it not bizarre that the car should have vanished? Not at all, said a defence lawyer, Jean-Marc Coblence, during a break in the hearing. "Say you left the scene of the accident, not knowing how serious it was. The next day you see what happened and to whom. You have two choices. You approach the cops and the world press descends on your back. Or you drive the car into a lake."

Conspiracy theories surrounding the Fiat were not on the agenda on Friday. One reason why so many rumours and fanciful reconstructions have flourished is the supposedly secret nature of the French judicial-investigative process. Nine months after the accident, there has still been no press conference to establish basic facts and nail the sillier rumours which have appeared in the French scandal magazines or British tabloids.

There is no reason to disbelieve the assertion made in an ITV documentary last week, repeated in the Spectator, that the blood tests on the driver, Henri Paul, also showed him to have been suffering from severe carbon- monoxide poisoning. But what does this mean? French judicial sources, as always, refused to comment officially.

Much about the events of 30-31 August, 1997, remains mysterious, even odd. But the same would be true of almost any event which had been investigated as exhaustively as the crash at the Pont de L'Alma and the information then projected into a distorting mirror of partial leaks and outright inventions.

Why did the Mercedes leave the road when it did? No complete answer yet exists, although the finger of suspicion still points to the mental and physical state of the driver, Henri Paul, who had been drinking and taken anti-depressant drugs. These facts have been established from blood tests.

Minute technical investigation of the wreckage of the Mercedes is still going on, probably delaying the judge's final report until October.