LONDON - The car crash that killed Diana, the Princess of Wales, was never a simple accident to the conspiracy theorists it inspired, with their tales of secret plots and shadowy schemes at the highest levels of the British establishment.
Officials have generally dismissed such notions as groundless and absurd. But yesterday, as Britain's royal coroner opened the formal, long-delayed inquests into the deaths in 1997 of Diana and her companion, Emad Mohammed al-Fayed, he said that he would consider whether to include the theories in his investigation.
"I am aware that there is speculation that these deaths were not the result of a sad, but relatively straightforward, road traffic accident in Paris," the coroner, Michael Burgess, said in opening the proceedings at a conference center here.
"I have asked the Metropolitan Police commissioner to make inquiries," Burgess continued. "The results of these inquiries will help me decide whether such matters will fall within the scope of the investigation carried out at the inquests."
The inquests, conducted as a matter of routine when British citizens die violently abroad and are buried back home, would normally have been carried out soon after the deaths of Diana, 36, and Fayed, 42, known as Dodi. The couple died on Aug. 31, 1997, when the Mercedes-Benz in which they were riding spun out of control in a Paris underpass as the driver, who was also killed, tried to elude paparazzi on motorcycles.
But the inquiries have been held up because of lingering legal aspects of the French investigation, including efforts by Fayed's father, Mohammed al-Fayed, to bring civil charges against three of the eight photographers pursuing the car.
A French inquiry concluded in 1999 that the crash was an accident brought on because the driver, Henri Paul, was drunk and speeding dangerously. A criminal case against the photographers following the car came to nothing.
But neither quelled speculation about the real causes of the accident, or answered questions that still buzz around the crash: Was Diana pregnant? What happened to a white car that was seen in the vicinity of the accident but mysteriously vanished? Why did blood tests show that Paul had breathed in huge quantities of carbon monoxide?
According to The Times of London, some 27 percent of Britons believe that the princess was murdered, perhaps because her affair with Dodi Fayed was embarrassing to the British establishment, and perhaps because her popularity and unregal, sometimes erratic, behavior had become liabilities too large for the royal family.
Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods department store, has been the most public proponent of the murder theory, contending that Diana and his son were killed by Britain's security services. Several books have also made the case that the deaths were assassinations authorized by the monarchy and carried out by MI6, Britain's equivalent of the CIA.
In a strange twist, Diana herself apparently believed that her life was in jeopardy. In a letter written 10 months before the crash, she said that "this particular phase in my life is the most dangerous," according to Paul Burrell, her former butler, who included the letter - blanking out the name of the person Diana believed to be conspiring against her - in his recent tell-all book about the princess.
Yesterday, however, The Daily Mirror, a tabloid newspaper that bought the rights to Burrell's story, revealed that the person who Diana apparently feared was her ex-husband, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne. The full text of the relevant passage in the letter, it reported, reads: "My husband is planning 'an accident' in my car, brake failure and serious head injury in order to make the path clear for him to marry."
The Mirror's editor, Piers Morgan, defended the decision to publish Charles' name, saying that Burrell had been ordered to turn the letter over to the inquest and that its contents would have become public anyway.
Meanwhile, Colleen Harris, Charles' former press secretary, told reporters that the claim was "preposterous" and "utter nonsense."
In an editorial in The Daily Mail, the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth said yesterday that the murder theories are "as weird as they are offensive."
Forsyth wrote that it is nearly impossible to kill a well-guarded public figure, as Diana was, and to make it look like an accident. "Out goes the rifle, the handgun, the knife, poison, the bomb, the noose and the fall off the cliff," he said.
Though the cause of high excitement in British news media circles, yesterday's events were hardly the start of a thrilling new phase in the long and winding story of the princess' death. No sooner did Burgess open the inquest - and a separate one for Fayed, held in Surrey - than he adjourned both, saying he needed at least a year to examine all the material that has and will be forthcoming from Paris, including hundreds of pages of documents.
The scope of the inquiry is a narrow one, answering just four basic questions, Burgess said: "who the dead person was, and how, when and where the cause of death arose."
It is not a criminal case and will not decide questions of liability.
Burgess said that he was in touch with family members of the princess and Fayed and that he did not want to "trespass on their grief."