The mysterious murder of three diplomats assigned to the Chinese government’s educational mission in Washington stumped the local police and was front page news around the nation in 1919. The men had been shot to death in cold blood, their decaying bodies discovered two days later, and a $5,000 check was missing from the mission's ledger. Acting on a tip, detectives soon zeroed in on young Ziang Sung Wan, a sometime Chinese student living in New York who had been seen at the death house on the day of the murders.


Two officers were dispatched to New York to retrieve Wan, who was sick in bed, a victim of the influenza pandemic. Without a warrant, they searched his room, rifled through his personal effects and pressured him to return with them to Washington, where he was held incommunicado in a downtown hotel under 24-hour guard for a week. He was permitted no counsel and no visitors and was interrogated day and night. And his brother, suspected of attempting to cash the stolen check, was subjected to similar treatment. Both were badgered to confess, even after they made it clear they did not wish to talk.


The ceaseless questioning continued until an exhausted Wan confessed to one of the murders, only, he said later, to stop the relentless grilling. But Wan was jailed and tried for murder.


His trial was only the beginning of a seven-year journey through the legal system that culminated in a landmark Supreme Court ruling penned by Justice Louis Brandeis. The decision crystallized the principle governing the admissibility of confessions in court and set the stage for the famous Miranda v. Arizona case several decades later. But the seminal Wan case was arguably the more important of the two decisions.


In an era when police still mistreat criminal suspects and immigrants and minorities are still routinely denied their rights, it is a tale well worth retelling.

                             © 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 Scott D. Seligman