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Editorial: Mistrial shows area fights racism with fairness

A keenly anticipated malicious harassment trial is scheduled to begin again in Coeur d’Alene next week, the first attempt having come to an abrupt halt over a prosecutorial misstep.

Kootenai County 1st District Judge John Luster declared a mistrial on March 30, shortly after the trial of brothers Gino, William and Frank Tankovich got under way. The deputy prosecuting attorney played a tape of a neighbor’s 911 call, and the caller’s characterizations of what she was witnessing were presented to the jury in a way that constituted a legal error, Luster held. And that was that.

According to the charges against them, the defendants participated in a racially motivated threat during a confrontation with a Latino man, Kenneth Requena, at his home Aug. 16.

Anyone who’s resided in the Inland Northwest for long knows how emotionally charged issues of bigotry are in this region, with its historical association with the late Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations followers. Although the Tankovich brothers apparently were not among that group, Ira Tankovich does sport an “Aryan” tattoo, and the truck they were driving that day was described as having a swastika decoration and the words “born to kill.”

Such elements, coupled with belligerent behavior and racial slurs witnessed by police who responded to the incident, make a chilling impression on area residents who would like to lift the stain Butler’s long, odious presence left behind.

Sadly, there has been a resurgence of racist activity in the region, including the distribution of offensive fliers in several Coeur d’Alene yards, including Requena’s, shortly before Aug. 12.

But the equal protection of the law that Butler and his disciples would so happily deny to various minority groups must be available to everyone, and Luster’s job requires him to assure that the justice system functions fairly and honestly.

The Tankoviches and Requena offer sharply differing accounts of what transpired on Aug. 16, and it will be up to a jury to evaluate the evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion about the facts.

Part of the judge’s responsibility is to make sure that the evidence is delivered properly, which is why he threw a flag over the 911 tape. It probably would have been easier for Luster to let the trial go on, but that would have served no good purpose if it had continued to a verdict only to be overturned on appeal.

Whichever way this trial ends, it is important not just to the parties but to the whole community. The Tankoviches and Requena all are entitled to justice. And Coeur d’Alene deserves a reputation for the impartial administration of justice.


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