Diana: The crash, the 'cover-up' and the coroner

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Michael Burgess saw the broken body of Diana, Princess of Wales, on the day she died. He was in the air-conditioned autopsy room as a pathologist examined Diana's corpse, hours after the car crash that had killed her. Six years later, Mr Burgess is the coroner poised to open inquests into the deaths of Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed.

Conspiracy theories have grown up around the dead Princess like the thorns around Sleeping Beauty's castle, and it remains to be seen whether the memory of what he saw late on 31 August 1997 will inspire Mr Burgess to hack through them. Coroners are not allowed to lay blame, but one of the few people who saw Diana's injuries now has a unique opportunity to draw up a definitive statement about her death. Presiding over the first British public hearings into the tragedy, he has access to all 6,000 pages of evidence uncovered by French investigators and the power to compel British witnesses to attend. He can also ask French doctors, the paparazzi or anyone else to take the stand - but the Coroner of the Queen's Household may prefer to not to call anybody.

Mohamed al-Fayed is one person eager to speak. The owner of Harrods and father of Dodi is chief among the conspiracy theorists, believing the couple's death in a Parisian underpass was caused by secret agents working for the British establishment. But he and others who see dark forces at work are unlikely to get much satisfaction when the inquest into Diana's death is opened by Mr Burgess at 10.30am on Tuesday in the Fleming Room of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. The Royal Coroner will make a brief statement about the scope of his inquiry and adjourn the inquest.

Then Mr Burgess will travel to Reigate in Surrey, where he is the county coroner. On Tuesday afternoon at 3pm he will open and adjourn the inquest into the death of Dodi Fayed, an American citizen deemed to have lived in Oxted.

It could take the coroner six months to absorb and judge the French evidence. Only then will he decide how to proceed - and which witnesses to call, if any.

His grim task was expected to fall to another. Mr Burgess attended the autopsy on the Princess's body at the Hammersmith and Fulham mortuary on the night after the crash as deputy to the then royal coroner, Dr John Burton. The body had been flown back to London from Paris that afternoon, via RAF Northolt. French investigating magistrates took two years to decide that the deaths of Diana and Dodi in the tunnel beneath the Place de l'Alma had been an accident - after which Dr Burton said a British inquest would be "a waste of time and everybody's money". But he retired in 2002, and at the end of last year it fell to his successor to start proceedings.

The twin inquests - linked only by the coincidence of Mr Burgess holding office in both Surrey and the royal palaces - are unlikely to disturb the findings of the French investigation: that Diana and Dodi and their chauffeur died because, Henri Paul, the man at the wheel of the armoured Mercedes pressed into use by Dodi at the last moment, had been drinking heavily and taking anti-depressants.

All the capricious decisions placing Diana and Dodi in that city in that car with that driver in that under-pass at that moment (not wearing seat belts) were decisions taken by the doomed couple themselves - and mostly by Dodi. It would have required an act of God-like omniscience and utter foolhardiness by M16, the CIA or whoever - even assuming the motive and will - to have organised an assassination of a beloved public figure in such unpredictable and rapidly changing circumstances. The British inquests are not being held because there is any official doubt about the thoroughness of the French investigation. The law requires a British coroner to hold an inquest on any British citizen who dies abroad in accidental or suspicious circumstances. So why has it taken so long? Mr Fayed has complained vigorously about this, but the main reason for the delay is that British inquests could not take place until French legal processes had been completed. The decisions of the examining magistrate, Hervé Stephan, were appealed through the French courts until they were finally thrown out in 2001. Another action was then brought against some of the photographers who had pursued the car, accusing them of invading Dodi's privacy. That case was thrown out last month. Like almost all the legal actions that delayed the inquests, it was started by Mr Fayed.

And yet the conspiracy theories thrive, fuelled, in part, by the secretive French way of investigating and deciding these things. The 6,000-page file assembled by Judge Stephan has never been made public. He has never given an interview or a press conference to explain his findings. If he is called to give evidence at the inquests, he will refuse - not because he has something to hide, but because he is still bound by his professional oath of secret d'instruction, or the secrecy of investigation.

Before Christmas The Independent on Sunday reported that there had been a cover-up of sorts in the days after Diana's death. A senior police source in France told us that the Princess - contrary to the official version and the statements of her friends - was pregnant when she died. According to our source, the evidence that Diana was pregnant is somewhere in the medical papers now with Mr Burgess.

Diana died at Pitié-Salpetrière hospital from heart failure as the result of multiple internal injuries. (Had she been wearing a seat-belt, she would have been alive today. This may indicate how seriously Diana took her own premonition - touted recently by her former butler Paul Burrell - that she would be killed in a faked road accident.) The investigation file contains the medical records from the efforts of doctors in the emergency operating room to keep her alive.

Her friend Rosa Monckton was with Diana 10 days before the crash and says it would have been "biologically impossible" for her to have been pregnant when she died. Some readers questioned our decision to publish the new assertion of pregnancy, but there has been so much speculation - and deliberately engineered confusion - surrounding Diana's death, that any new, and credible, piece of evidence about the events of August 1997 is worth reporting. When the Daily Mail followed up our story it claimed there was evidence that Diana had sought a pregnancy scan at a "leading London hospital" in the month she died.

Why should the pregnancy matter? Not because of the feeble notion that it would support a murder theory - the senior police source in France who told us Diana was pregnant was also sure her death was accidental - but because a cover-up may help explain some of the puzzling events seized on by conspiracy theorists. Why, for instance, was her body partially embalmed before it was flown to Britain while Dodi's was not? This threatened confusion, at the very least, when blood samples were taken from Diana in London. The formaldehyde used in embalming could have tainted the samples - it is known, for example, to produce false evidence of pregnancy, which may have caused lab scientists to dismiss any genuine sign of pregnancy. This is one aspect of the circumstances surrounding Diana's death that could be elucidated by the British hearings - but may not be if Mr Burgess decides it is irrelevant to the inquest. (The French investigation took this view, which is why the question of Diana's pregnancy was not addressed in the official report of September 1999.)

It remains to be seen how much of the French file Mr Burgess will have translated, and how much of it will then be made public. (At the very least, documents in the case have to be made available to lawyers representing all interested parties.) The file consists of more than 300 witness statements, taken by the 30 detectives who worked on the case for two years (interviews with witnesses at the scene; with the photographers; with medical staff; with employees of the Ritz hotel, which the couple had just left; with friends and family of the driver, Henri Paul; and with the two British bodyguards who were travelling with the couple).

The file also contains expert evidence on the accident itself (the damage to the car, its presumed speed on impact, the skid marks in the road, the evidence that the Mercedes struck - rather than was struck by - a white Fiat Uno just before the crash). The file contains evidence on the fruitless attempts by French police to find the car. It contains the results of the two tests made on M. Paul's blood, which found that he had taken large quantities of alcohol, as well as anti-depressant drugs. One of these sets of test results - but only one - also includes the mysterious finding that the chauffeur's blood contained abnormally and dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. Since he died instantly, how could this have been absorbed from the air-bags in the Mercedes, as French experts claim? This is certainly one area where the British coroner could legitimately probe a gap in the French investigation.

M. Paul's family insist that the carbon-monoxide finding shows that the blood in the sample did not come from him. The samples were switched to make a case that the driver was drunk, they say. However, there are also the second test results and witness reports, and a bar bill from the Ritz, suggesting he had been drinking heavily.

The file also contains medical evidence about the causes of the three deaths and the attempts made by the French emergency response team to save Diana's life by the roadside. Could she have been saved if she had been taken straight to hospital? Armchair medics in the United States have suggested so; but the French authorities say everything possible was done to keep her alive. Here is another area where Mr Burgess could cut short speculation.

The hard-core conspiracy theorists will never give up. There is also disturbing evidence that an increasing number of ordinary British people - 27 per cent, according to a recent poll - have been persuaded by their arguments. This is understandable. The uncertainties surrounding the accident (as in any accident) have been emphasised and deliberately twisted out of context. The basic facts of the case - the implausibility of a professional assassination being organised in that place at that time in that way, on a day when Diana and Dodi changed their plans hourly - are rarely recalled.

Mr Burgess is investigating two deaths, not a tangle of conspiracy theories. He can, nevertheless, perform a valuable service to common sense: he should allow a great deal of the detailed evidence from the French investigation to be made public to help to place the wilder theories in context. After all, he was there when this most high profile of cases began. The mortuary manager who assisted the pathologist late on 31 August 1997 has confirmed that Mr Burgess was present. Now, unusually for a coroner, he will read and judge every word of evidence in the knowledge of what he saw that night, with his own eyes.

The coroner

By Sophie Goodchild

A private man who has investigated deaths from Deepcut to Milly Dowler

Not known as someone who seeks publicity, Michael Burgess will nevertheless be guaranteed a prominent place in the history of Diana's life and death, whatever conclusion he reaches.

The qualified solicitor has more than 20 years' experience as a coroner, and has been Coroner of the Queen's Household since 2002. Married with children, he is fiercely protective of his private life.

However, this is not the first time that Mr Burgess, who has practised as a solicitor since 1970, has found himself in a controversial role. In 2002, he recorded an open verdict at the inquest of 17-year-old Private Geoff Gray, one of four soldiers who died in suspicious circumstances at Deepcut barracks. The Army suggested that Pte Gray had committed suicide but Mr Burgess said: "I do not find that he took his own life."

He was also the coroner at the inquest into the death of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose remains were found in Yateley Heath Forest in Hampshire. In 1995, he recorded a verdict of unlawful killing at the inquest into the death of Karen Reed. She was shot dead on her doorstep by a hitman who had mistaken her for her sister, Alison Ponting, the former wife of an Armenian gangster.

The decision to give the task of carrying out Diana's inquest to the royal coroner, especially as she was stripped of her royal title before her death, has been questioned. The law states that an inquiry must take place into the death of anyone who dies an apparently unnatural death abroad. The royal coroner is brought in when a member of the Royal Family dies in an accident or in suspicious circumstances. As a resident of Kensington Palace, Diana was technically still a member of the Royal Household when she died.

The last royal inquest was carried out in 1972 when Prince William of Gloucester, eldest son of the Queen's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was killed in a plane crash. Royal inquests are traditionally held at St James's Palace with a jury of 12 royal staff to act as representatives of the public.

The jury can include members of the Royal Family, although this is rare because, under the coroner's rules, members of the jury are not allowed to be related to the deceased either by blood or through marriage.

A spokeswoman for Mr Burgess said he had not yet decided if he would call a jury but she added that a jury was only present on "very rare occasions".

As Surrey coroner since 1986, Mr Burgess will also preside over the inquest into the death of Dodi Fayed, who is buried in the county.

Q and A

What is a coroner? An officer of the Crown appointed to investigate certain types of death. There are some doctors, but they are mostly lawyers like Michael Burgess. He is responsible for Surrey, and also, separately, for deaths within the royal household.

What does a coroner do? "Investigate the circumstances of the deaths of all persons whose bodies are lying within his jurisdiction where he has reason to believe that the death was violent, unnatural or of unknown cause," says the Home Office. This may include residents who die abroad, such as the Princess and her lover. The coroner cannot force foreign witnesses to attend.

What can inquests find out? Who the deceased were, where and when they died, how the cause of death arose.

Can the coroner say who is to blame? No. An inquest is not a trial. But Mr Burgess may investigate "any acts or omissions which directly led to the cause of death".

Is there a jury? Rarely. The royal coroner does have the right to call a jury made up of exclusively of members of the royal household.

Who can ask the witnesses questions? Anyone who has a "proper interest" (such as the families of the deceased) can hire a lawyer or do it themselves. Questions must be sensible and relevant. The coroner's decision is final.

What qualities does a coroner need? Clarity of thought, says the Home Office, allied to compassion; commitment to public service; the ability to counsel the bereaved and work harmoniously with police, doctors, undertakers, registrars, politicians, inspectors and the media; a knack for calming tense situations and reassuring nervous witnesses; an understanding of the importance of each inquest to the bereaved.