Source AP ©

Inquest into Princess Diana's death doubts motorcyclist's testimony

The investigation of Princess Diana's death has doubts about testimony from a motorcyclist hired to drive around a photographer that day, accusing him of telling "self-serving lies" about their pursuit of Diana's car.

Richard Keen, a lawyer representing the family of driver Henri Paul, accused Stephane Darmon of lying about the day he ferried photographer Romuald Rat in pursuit of Diana and boyfriend Dodi Fayed before the fatal crash on Aug. 31, 1997.

Pictures of the injured princess inside the car taken by Rat had been offered to a British tabloid for 300,000 pounds (then US$480,000), according to the newspaper's former photo editor.

"What percentage does the driver get, Mr. Darmon?" Keen asked.

"I don't know how to answer this," Darmon said. "This is totally delirious. I am nothing. I am a motorcycle rider."

The inquest had hoped to begin hearing testimony from the paparazzi on Wednesday, but one has refused and three others listed for that day cannot be located, the court was told.

Darmon stuck to his account that he drove cautiously and took no risks while following the couple from Le Bourget airport to Fayed's flat, then to the Ritz Hotel and finally down an expressway to the tunnel.

He said Diana's Mercedes roared away from him, and he lost track of it until catching up at the Pont d'Alma tunnel.

"I suggest that you were far more a player in this final game than you care to admit," Keen said to Darmon, who testified via a videolink from Paris.

"Not at all," said Darmon, who at the time was working for the Gamma photo agency. "I was told what to do."

Michael Mansfield, representing Mohamed al Fayed, and Ian Croxford, representing the Ritz Hotel, also questioned Darmon over differences in his account and the testimony of witnesses who said they saw a cluster of motorcycles and cars chasing the couple's Mercedes through Paris.

In some cases, witnesses reported seeing motorcycles close behind or even beside the Mercedes just before it entered the tunnel and crashed, killing Diana, Fayed and their driver.

The lawyers, however, suggested it was Darmon's job to stay close to the car in pursuit of a lucrative scoop. "I was sometimes pushed," Darmon said in response to one question.

Croxford said French authorities established that a Honda 650 such as Darmon's could go 100 yards from a standing start in 6.4 seconds, reaching a speed of 57 mph, whereas a Mercedes 280 with four people aboard like Diana's car would take 7.8 seconds to cover that distance, reaching a speed of 50 mph.

Darmon, nonetheless, continued to insist that the Mercedes shot away from him.

Al Fayed contends that his son and the princess were victims of a plot orchestrated by Prince Philip, Queen Elizbeth's husband. French and British police blamed the accident on Paul, the driver, based on evidence that he was over the legal alcohol limit and driving too fast.

Croxford questioned Darmon's story of an uneventful day. He cited a statement by Philippe Dorneau, who drove the couple into Paris from Le Bourget airport, saying one paparazzi vehicle got in front of them and jammed on the brakes. Outside Fayed's apartment, Croxford noted a report of a bodyguard physically confronting the photographers.

"Yes, there was a fight between Romuald Rat and that bodyguard," said Darmon.

Questioned by Keen, Darmon said he didn't know whether Rat had been able to get some images from the tunnel before being arrested.

"Maybe," Darmon said, "but I was outside having a conversation with two old ladies at the time."

"So your evidence is that you are employed as a dispatch rider by this photograph agency, Mr. Rat gets his scoop photographs, but you are talking to two old ladies, you don't know how they arrived in the offices of The Sun (newspaper)," Keen said. "Can I suggest that, like much of your evidence, that simply wasn't true?"

Darmon, Rat and several other photographers were placed under investigation after the crash to determine what role they may have played in the accident and whether they violated France's "Good Samaritan" law by not offering help.

Darmon is now a French civil servant.