Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Seligman's "Third Degree"

Scott Seligman has published The Third Degree: The Triple Murder that Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice, with Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.  We were pleased to receive the following commendation of the book from George Yin, UVA Law, who is related to one of the slain diplomats:
The book provides the back story of Ziang Sung Wan v. U.S., 266 U.S. 1 (1924), one of the important precedents for the 1966 Miranda decision. The case involved a young Chinese student who was accused of murdering one of three Chinese diplomats in Washington, DC in 1919.  The police held the accused in custody for about 10 days, first in New York, then in a DC hotel, and finally at the murder scene, and kept interrogating Wan until he finally confessed to one of the murders. Throughout the period, Wan was ill with the widespread Spanish flu, had no attorney or other help, and was not advised of any rights. Justice Brandeis’s opinion for the unanimous Court overturned Wan’s conviction based on the involuntariness of the confession, and although Wan was tried twice more, he was eventually freed. The book tells the fascinating story, involving cameo appearances of people like John W. Davis, very well.
The press’s description after the jump:
If you’ve ever seen an episode of Law and Order, you can probably recite your Miranda rights by heart. But you likely don’t know that these rights had their roots in the case of a young Chinese man accused of murdering three diplomats in Washington DC in 1919. A frantic search for clues and dogged interrogations by gumshoes erupted in sensational news and editorial coverage and intensified international pressure on the police to crack the case.

Part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and part landmark legal case, The Third Degree is the true story of a young man’s abuse by the Washington police and an arduous, seven-year journey through the legal system that drew in Warren G. Harding, William Howard Taft, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John W. Davis, and J. Edgar Hoover. The ordeal culminated in a sweeping Supreme Court ruling penned by Justice Louis Brandeis that set the stage for the Miranda warning many years later. Scott D. Seligman argues that the importance of the case hinges not on the defendant’s guilt or innocence but on the imperative that a system that presumes one is innocent until proven guilty provides protections against coerced confessions.

Today, when the treatment of suspects between arrest and trial remains controversial, when bias against immigrants and minorities in law enforcement continues to deny them their rights, and when protecting individuals from compulsory self-incrimination is still an uphill battle, this century-old legal spellbinder is a cautionary tale that reminds us how we got where we are today and makes us wonder how far we have yet to go.