This Brutal Triple-Murder Case Helped Establish Your Right to Remain Silent
The mystery of the slaying of three Chinese men in 1919 Washington, DC, seemed over after cops got someone to confess. It wasn't that simple.
Photo courtesy University of Nebraska-Lincoln/Rosemary Vestal. Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Theodore Wong's body was the first to be discovered. When no one answered the door for several days, one of his students crawled in through the window and found the doctor sprawled on the first floor entryway. A trail of blood led from the door down to the basement. Wong, it appeared, had been shot and struck with a blunt object, and when the police were summoned, they discovered the corpses of two other men, both of whom had been shot to death.
It was 1919, and DC cops struggled to make sense of the grisly scene. Chinese nationals just didn't get murdered in Washington, DC, and that kind of violence was especially hard to fathom in the city’s diplomatic quarter.
The slain men had worked for the Chinese Educational Mission, where they were in charge of a few hundred students studying in the United States on government-sponsored scholarships. But once they zeroed in on a suspect—a young Chinese student named Ziang Sung Wan—police traveled north to his Manhattan, New York, digs, searched it without a warrant, and pressured him to return to DC with them. There, they held Wan incommunicado in a hotel room for a week in hopes of extracting a confession.
In his new book, The Third Degree: The Triple Murder That Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice, Scott Seligman breaks down the true crime saga that shocked the nation and helped shape police interactions in the legal system and American popular culture. Among other things, the seminal 1966 Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona, establishing your "right to remain silent" directly cited and built upon the protections established in the 1924 Supreme Court decision, Ziang Sung Wan v. United States. That ruling overturned Wan’s conviction for murder, citing the shady circumstances of his involuntary confession.
VICE spoke with the author by phone to find out how the admissibility of confessions in criminal trials has changed over the years, and why decades of precedent haven't stopped cops from railroading suspects.
VICE: We talked previously about your book on Chinese-American gangs wars in New York. How did you make your way down to this story in DC?
Scott Seligman: I found my way to The Third Degree while Tong Wars was in production. On the lookout for a new topic, I turned to my favorite source for good ideas: old newspapers. One of the first I stumbled on was the lead story in a 1919 edition DC newspaper that claimed that "the internationally famous triple Chinese murder mystery which has been agitating two continents" had been cracked. It got my interest. And as I realized that it was a case that revolved around mistreatment of suspects between arrest and trial as well as bias against immigrants and minorities in law enforcement, I realized that it was a story with important implications even for today.
What kind of pressures were the largely white police force under to solve this case?
Washington had never seen a triple murder in the diplomatic corps and the pressure came from all directions—local government, federal government, and the Chinese embassy. The newspapers were all over the crime, reporting daily on developments, and filling in the blanks when they lacked facts. It was seen in all quarters as a major test for the DC police.
Inspector Clifford L. Grant and Detective Sergeants Edward J. Kelly and Guy E. Burlingame were credited with solving the crime and even profiled in the Washington Times as heroes. That obviously didn't age well, huh?
On the one hand, they saw their principal suspect convicted, something that gladdens the heart of any detective. But they also saw the verdict overturned, and they saw themselves criticized for how they had handled him and how they had elicited his confession. I don’t think any of them believed they had done wrong, which must have made things difficult when he was freed. Grant lived long enough to see the Supreme Court throw out the verdict, but not long enough to see Wan freed. Burlingame was later hauled up on corruption charges that were dismissed, but that resulted in his retirement. Kelly, too, was investigated for bungling a murder investigation, but he went on to become chief of police.
What about the legacy of Raymond J. Pullman, the police chief at the time?
Pullman had a reputation for rectitude. He was a former newspaperman who had not grown up in the police force. He was gentlemanly during Wan’s interrogations and left most of the nastier tactics to his detectives, but he wasn’t above a racial epithet or two. He, too, took a public victory lap when Wan confessed. He died before Wan was retried.
Judge Ashley Gould oversaw the original criminal trial. How much of the police and prosecutorial misconduct in this story sits on his shoulders?
Gould was a former US attorney who had been appointed to the bench by Theodore Roosevelt and had already sat for two decades when the Wan case came before him. Wan was charged with first degree murder and was facing death by hanging in 1919. The US Attorney's office was keen to convict him, but apart from circumstantial evidence that he had been seen at the murder venue on the day of the killings, their case rested mostly on Wan’s confession, which he recanted at trial. They were concerned that Judge Gould would throw it out, but that did not happen. In fact, his refusal to exclude the confession was the principal basis for the appeal of Wan’s guilty verdict.
Some pretty boldfaced names got involved in getting Wan’s sentence overturned, which surprised me.
President Warren G. Harding was approached to commute Wan’s sentence and threw the petitioners out of his office. [But] William Howard Taft presided over the Supreme Court when it considered Wan’s case, and it was he who designated Louis Brandeis to write the opinion. Oliver Wendell Holmes was also on the court at the time. All three supported the decision. John W. Davis ran for president even while he was a member of Wan’s defense team, and J. Edgar Hoover, who lived down the block from the crime scene, was enlisted to track down witnesses when Wan was retried.
On its own, ZIANG SUNG WAN v. UNITED STATES is a case that is little known outside of legal circles. Is that just because its scope is relatively narrow?
In a nutshell, the Supreme Court, in throwing out Wan’s conviction, ruled that the Fifth Amendment permitted only voluntary confessions to be admitted as evidence in federal courts.
Well just how routine was abusing suspects to obtain confessions before this case and the Miranda one that followed?
Not too long ago, many people felt that "sweating" a confession out of someone was acceptable. Police departments across America sometimes used techniques we would consider torture today. The Wan case made it clear that confessions were not admissible in federal court unless they were voluntary, but that left two important unresolved issues. First, because Wan had been tried in the District of Columbia, the new standard applied only to cases before federal courts.
The privileges promised the accused in the Bill of Rights had not yet been determined to apply to the states and localities. This convoluted process, known as the "incorporation doctrine," actually took decades. And second, the new standard lacked clarity. For all his eloquence, Brandeis hadn’t provided a satisfactory definition of "voluntariness" or instructions as to what had to be done to ensure it.
Right, so even after the favorable ruling for the defense in the 1920s, it took decades for Miranda to become law—for the "right to remain silent." Did that settle it, in your view?
Overly aggressive police departments still try to find ways to skirt its provisions, and there are persistent reports of suspects being tricked, coerced or brutalized, most often minorities. But all laws get violated from time to time. It’s the role of the courts to ensure that justice is done, but the courts are only as good as the judges appointed to them.
The craziest part of this story might be that Ziang Sung Wan, whatever he did, left a dystopian criminal justice system in one country just to be caught up in one abroad, right?
Wan returned to China in about 1930, married, and had a family. But the family lost its money during the Japanese occupation. He got a job working for the Shanghai municipal government, but in 1949, when the Communists took over, he lost that, and was accused of being a counterrevolutionary. He spent the rest of his life in jail. He died in 1968, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
So what was the lasting impact of Wan’s case beyond the precedent it helped set in jurisprudence?
It remained a cause celebre even after it was decided. It was often brought up as a negative example, and the fact that Wan was not actually physically abused actually made it a stronger one than many others. Most people would agree that beating a suspect won’t necessarily yield a true confession, but the Wan case made the point that there were far more subtle means of coercion than physical abuse—and that they were equally suspect.
Learn more about Seligman's book, out this month from Potomac Books, here.
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