London Prosecutors unexpectedly dropped theft charges against Princess Diana's butler Friday after Queen Elizabeth II revealed she knew he'd taken some of Diana's possessions for safekeeping prompting speculation the monarch had acted to shield her family.
The queen's revelation brought a dramatic end to Paul Burrell's trial, a case that has fascinated Britain and put personal details of Diana's life on public display.
Prosecutor William Boyce said his team had dropped the charges after learning Burrell told the queen shortly after Diana was killed in a 1997 Paris car crash that he had taken the objects.
However, skeptics speculated the monarch was trying to prevent her relatives from having to testify or Burrell from embarrassing the royal family if he took the stand.
Buckingham Palace maintained the queen realized only recently that her conversation with Burrell shortly after Diana died in a Paris car crash might be relevant to his case.
"The prosecution has concluded that the current trial is no longer viable because it has proceeded on a false premise that Mr. Burrell had never told anyone that he was holding anything for safekeeping," Boyce said in court.
"The only appropriate course is to offer no further evidence against Mr. Burrell and to invite the court to direct that verdicts of 'not guilty' should be entered in this case," Boyce said.
Judge Anne Rafferty discharged the jury, declared Burrell innocent and told him he was free to go. Burrell whom Diana had called "my rock" sobbed and hugged his lawyer.
"The queen has come through for me," Burrell said as he left the court. "I'm thrilled. I'm so thrilled."
Burrell, 44, had pleaded innocent to three charges relating to the alleged theft of more than 300 items from the princess and other members of the royal family.
The property allegedly included letters, photos and compact discs owned by Diana, Prince Charles and their son Prince William. The thefts allegedly occurred between Jan. 1, 1997, and June 30, 1998. Diana died on Aug. 31, 1997.
Burrell has said the princess gave him some of the items for safekeeping and he took others after her death for the same reason.
Although the case has been making headlines for close to two years, Buckingham Palace said the queen realized only a week ago that her private talk with Burrell might have been significant.
Boyce said that on Oct. 25, the monarch told her husband, Prince Philip, and her son Charles that Burrell had mentioned to her that he had taken some of Diana's papers for safekeeping.
Press reports said the conversation took place in a royal limousine as the family was driven to a memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral for the victims of the Bali bombings.
Charles believed the meeting was relevant to the Burrell trial and word of it was given to prosecutors Monday, Boyce said. Rafferty halted proceedings without explanation Tuesday and ordered the jury to go home.
The queen was on a 12-day trip to Canada during the early part of the trial, a palace spokeswoman said.
"It was only when she saw media reports of the trial that she felt that her meetings five years ago with Mr. Burrell might be of some relevance," a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity.
Labor Party lawmaker Paul Flynn said the official account of the case's collapse was implausible, suggesting the royal family wanted to stop Burrell from possibly revealing embarrassing details of life inside the palaces when he took the witness stand.