LONDON — A coroner's jury returned the most serious verdict within its power Monday, ruling that Princess Diana and her boyfriend were unlawfully killed because their driver and pursuing paparazzi were reckless — behavior tantamount to manslaughter.
Criminal charges were unlikely, however, because the incident happened in France outside the jurisdiction of British authorities.
Rejecting claims by the father of Diana's boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, that the couple were murdered, the jury concluded after six months of testimony they were victims of reckless speed by their drinking chauffeur and the pack of photographers chasing after them in Paris in 1997.
"The verdict is unlawful killing, grossly negligent driving of the following vehicles and of the Mercedes" carrying the couple, the jury foreman announced.
That was the verdict of nine of the 11 jurors. There was no indication why there were two dissenters.
All 11 agreed that the car slamming head-on into a concrete pillar rather than striking the wall on the other side was a key factor in their deaths. The jury also faulted Diana and Fayed for not buckling their seat belts.
But jurors laid the heaviest blame on the couple's driver, Henri Paul, who had been drinking shortly before the high-speed crash that killed all three in a Paris underpass on Aug. 31, 1997, and on the paparazzi following them.
Diana's sons, Princes William and Harry, issued a statement expressing support for the verdict and thanking the jurors for their long work.
"We agree with their verdicts, and are both hugely grateful to each and every one of them for the forbearance they have shown in accepting such significant disruption to their lives over the past six months," the princes said.
Fayed's wealthy father, Mohamed Al Fayed, declared that the jury got it wrong. "The most important thing is, it is murder," he said as he left the Royal Courts of Justice.
Al Fayed's father disappointed
The coroner, Lord Justice Scott Baker, had instructed the jury there was no proof whatever for Al Fayed's contention that the couple were victims of a murder plot orchestrated by Prince Philip and carried out by British secret agents.
John Stevens, the former chief of London's Metropolitan Police, said the verdicts vindicated the force's two-year investigation.
"What they have said, of course, is that the deaths were caused by Henri Paul and also by the paparazzi," Stevens said. "If you read the report, you will see that's exactly what we said."
Because the accident happened in France, no British charges can be laid against the photographers.
Nine were charged with manslaughter in France, but the charges were thrown out in 2002. Three photographers — Jacques Langevin, Christian Martinez and Fabrice Chassery — were convicted of invasion of privacy for taking pictures of the couple and were each fined one euro in 2006.
The couple's deaths came six weeks after romance bloomed while Diana and her two sons were guests of Mohamed Al Fayed in southern France.
In following weeks, Diana and Dodi Fayed shared sea cruises, dinners in Paris, even a helicopter trip in England to visit a medium trusted by Diana. Fayed showered Diana with lavish gifts, including a ring that may or may not have been intended to seal an engagement.
When the couple flew to Paris on Aug. 30, 1997, they were pursued from the airport by paparazzi, who then swarmed outside the Ritz Hotel — owned by Mohamed Al Fayed.
Fleeing the paparazzi
Hoping to shake off the paparazzi, Dodi Fayed agreed to a plan to sneak out the back way in a single car. At least three photographers weren't fooled, and the chase was on.
Fayed died instantly when the Mercedes, traveling more than 60 mph, slammed into a concrete pillar in the Alma underpass at 12:22 a.m. Medics initially thought Diana would survive her severe injuries, but she died at Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital around 4 a.m. Only Diana's bodyguard, Trevor Rees, lived.
French police announced a day after the crash that tests on Paul's blood showed his blood-alcohol level was three times over the national drunk-driving standard.
The finding was disputed, and British experts said the French documentation could have been better. But even Al Fayed's security chief discovered Paul had downed two double Ricards — equivalent to four shots of whiskey — in the hours before taking the wheel.
Al Fayed, who also owns Harrod's department store in London, has spent lavishly to investigate the crash and propound his theory of a royal plot against the couple.
Investigation costs millions
British taxpayers have paid a heavy price as well. The expense of the inquest, including lawyers and staff assisting the coroner, has passed $6 million, and the Metropolitan Police says it spent $16 million on its two-year investigation.
Those totals don't include the cost of lawyers who represented the London police and the Secret Intelligence Service during the inquest.
John Loughrey, who painted the names of Dodi and Diana on his face before attending the inquest every day, gave the verdict his approval.
"I'm happy for Diana, now she can rest in peace," he said.
But it may not be over. Al Fayed's aides weren't ruling out an appeal, perhaps arguing that the coroner erred in his instructions to the jury or in conduct of the proceedings.
"That is a very difficult route, but we are keeping all our options open," said Al Fayed's spokesman, Michael Cole.