Diana Inquest Judge To Step Down

The retired judge overseeing the long-delayed inquest into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and her friend Dodi Fayed said Tuesday she was stepping down.

But Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said her decision would not delay the hearings — which are scheduled to begin in October — any further. Another judge will take over in June.

"These inquests now require a jury, and I do not have the degree of experience of jury cases that I feel is necessary and appropriate for presiding over inquests of this level of public interest," she said in a statement. Now retired from the bench, Butler-Sloss was primarily a family court judge, and those cases are heard without juries.

Photos: Remembering Diana
Butler-Sloss had originally intended to hear evidence alone, but Mohamed al Fayed, Dodi Fayed's father, appealed that decision to a higher court and a three-judge panel ruled a jury should deliver the verdict.

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

Another judge, Lord Justice Scott Baker, will take over the hearings in June.

"I must stress this does not require a fresh start for the inquests," Butler-Sloss said in a statement. "I will continue to preside over pre-inquest hearings until Lord Justice Scott Baker takes up the appointment in June. This will ensure the inquests' momentum is maintained while he will have the opportunity to familiarize himself with the voluminous paperwork associated with the inquests."

2The jury is expected to hear evidence ranging from the route the couple's Mercedes took on the night they died in Paris to testimony about Diana's alleged fears for her life, the significance of a ring purchased by Fayed and whether the princess was pregnant.

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. He is expected to give evidence at the inquest.

A French investigation ruled that Paul was drunk and lost control of the car while trying to evade photographers. 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.

The British probe, code-named Operation Paget, concluded that Diana was not pregnant or about to marry Fayed, and that the crash was caused by Paul, who was drunk and speeding. Its results were made public late last year.