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Diana butler theft case thrown out

Paul Burrell
"I'm thrilled. I'm so thrilled," said Burrell after being cleared of stealing Princess Diana's possessions

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The case against former royal butler Paul Burrell has been dramatically thrown out of court after he was cleared of stealing from the estate of the late Princess Diana.

Burrell hugged his barrister, Lord Carlile QC, and sobbed uncontrollably when he realised the trial at the Old Bailey in London was being aborted on Friday.

The collapse of the case, which has cost $2.5 million (1.6 million), is one of the most extraordinary twists in British legal history.

Burrell, 44, had denied charges of stealing more than 300 of the princess's personal items after her death in a 1997 Paris car crash.

Royal commentator Robert Jobson told CNN it was the "amazing intervention of Buckingham Palace and the queen" that led to the case collapsing.

"The trial was halted when prosecution barrister William Boyce told the judge... Burrell had informed Queen Elizabeth in a private conversation following Diana's death that he had kept some of the princess's possessions for safe keeping," he said.

But Boyce told the court the prosecution had been brought on the basis that Burrell had not told anyone that he had kept items belonging to the princess.

It did not emerge until after the trial had started that Burrell had spoken to the queen, Boyce added.

Leaving the Old Bailey after the dramatic developments, Burrell declared: ""The queen has come through for me ... I'm thrilled. I'm so thrilled."

Burrell phoned his wife Maria from the courtroom after his lawyer had told her the news.

Buckingham Palace officials said in a statement later Friday: "The decision to drop the case against Mr Burrell was entirely a decision for the prosecution... the queen was not briefed on either Mr Burrell's defence case or on the prosecution case against him."

The palace said: "The prosecution did not ask the queen at any stage for details about her meeting with Mr Burrell."

The trial judge, Mrs. Justice Rafferty, discharged the jury in its absence in the third week of the trial and told Burrell he was free to go.

Burrell's solicitor, Andrew Shaw, later said in a statement: "He is happy and relieved to be acquitted on all the charges after the terrible ordeal of the last 21 months."

Diana and Burrell
Princess Diana referred to her butler Paul Burrell as "her rock".

A conversation between the queen and the Prince of Wales last Friday in a royal limousine led to the acquittal of butler Paul Burrell.

The queen and the Prince were on the way to St Paul's Cathedral in central London for a memorial service for the victims of the Bali bomb blast, when the queen mentioned she had met Burrell in the weeks after the death of Princess Diana, and the butler had told her he was keeping some papers for safekeeping.

The Prince thought this was significant and "... immediate steps were taken to draw this to the attention of the police," Buckingham Palace said in a statement.

The strength of the prosecution's case against Burrell -- the man Diana called her "rock" -- will now come under intense scrutiny, the UK Press Association reported.

In the first two weeks of the stop-start trial, about a dozen witnesses gave evidence for the prosecution as Burrell sat in the dock.

But the trial's sudden collapse means the jury and public has been denied the chance to hear the former butler explain himself in the witness box.

When Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash, it was her trusted servant to whom many turned.

His long service and close knowledge of the Princess made him indispensible to her family, royal aides and the country as they tried to make sense of the tragedy.

It was Burrell who flew to Paris to be handed the blood-stained clothing she died in. Asked to dispose of it, he quietly burnt it on a bonfire in his back garden in Cheshire, the court had heard.

So distraught was he by the loss of the Princess, staff at Kensington Palace even feared he might be in danger of taking his own life.

The head of Diana's household, Michael Gibbins, was so concerned that he ignored an order from the Prince of Wales to seal the Princess's apartments and prevent any of her staff from going in.

But it was Burrell's closeness to Diana that was seized on by the police and prosecution as explaining how he managed to take her possessions without arousing suspicion.

Detectives scoffed at his claim that boxes of her things found in his loft were "entrusted" to him.

Much of it had followed Burrell when he moved from his married quarters at the Old Barracks in Kensington Palace to a cottage in Farndon, Cheshire, and then again when the family moved to a three-storey house in the town.

Police who searched it told how the home was crammed with CDs and LPs signed Diana, her designer clothing, photos of her with Charles and their young sons and personal letters from "Mummy" to Prince William, addressed to "My darling wombat", his pet name.

But no evidence was ever presented that Burrell intended to sell these items, which would have been worth a fortune to collectors.

Burrell was arrested on suspicion of theft in January 2001, after police searched his home in northwest England and allegedly found dozens of Diana's personal items.

He said some were given to him by Diana for safekeeping and he took others in order to preserve her legacy.

Prosecution witnesses, including Diana's mother and sisters, testified that Burrell had no legal reason to be keeping personal photographs and letters belonging to the princess.

The prosecution alleged that in the days after Diana's death, Burrell entered her Kensington Palace home and removed personal items, including dresses.

Burrell has said he feared that there was a conspiracy to undermine her legacy.

The three-week trial has been beset by delays.

Rafferty halted proceedings on Tuesday without explanation and ordered the jury to go home. The week before, she had stopped the trial while a new jury was chosen.



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