A D.C. Murder That Led the High Court to Rule Against Coercion


The DC Line

Cover photo courtesy of Potomac books; courtesy of Scott Seligman

In 1919 a triple murder on Kalorama Road NW galvanized Washington. The victims were Chinese diplomats, all shot to death in the Chinese Educational Mission. The Metropolitan Police Department police quickly charged a 20-year-old Chinese student, Ziang Sung Wan, with the murders.

After days of isolation, illness and incessant questioning, Wan confessed, was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.

But for the next seven years, and sometimes just days before he was to ascend the gallows, one appeal after another stayed his execution — all the way to the Supreme Court.

“No one ever heard of this story,” Forest Hills resident and historian Scott Seligman said recently. So he decided to bring it to light.

Seligman — a Mandarin speaker and an alumnus of Princeton in Asia, a nonprofit founded in the 1890s to provide fellowships and service-oriented experiences — has spent much of his life living and working in China, first for the U.S.-China Business Council and then for the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller. Now retired, he was looking for a new challenge following his 2016 book, The Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money and Murder in New York’s Chinatown.

So he put “Chinese” and “murder” into a search engine, and there it was — a stunning triple murder right here in Washington.

In his new book, The Third Degree, Seligman traces Wan’s case through the various trials and appeals, including Justice Louis Brandeis’ ruling that “a confession obtained by compulsion must be excluded.” This ruling, Seligman explained, was a precursor to the Miranda rights that every fan of TV crime stories knows by heart.

As the story unfolded, the DC police were sure they had their murderer. Newspapers grimly and excitedly reported details of the victims and police efforts to extract a confession. Wan was questioned intensively, sometimes in a local hotel where he was often not allowed to sleep and suffered from a stomach illness. Wan finally confessed to one of the three murders — a confession he later retracted.

In his first trial, Wan testified that he simply gave in: “My idea to sign the confession — they want me to tell and wanted me to confess and to sign, and my idea is this: I want them to leave me alone and let my brother nurse me and let me get well. I don’t want to argue with them … ”

At the time of the murders, objections to the death penalty were increasing nationwide, and several young lawyers took up Wan’s case, shepherding it through years of appeals. Seligman’s detailed chronicle of this legal journey would keep any K Street lawyer’s light burning well into the night. He has carefully documented — with a timeline, footnotes and brief biographies — the story’s many legal twists and turns. He has examined newspaper reports, trial transcripts and records at the National Archives, where he read a draft of Brandeis’ decision, written in the justice’s own hand and reproduced in the book.

“He had a bold script — and not very legible,” Seligman said.

Scott D. Seligman

Devoting a chapter to the book’s title, Seligman offers several possible explanations for the description “the third degree,” including a reference to an 1860s New York Times story about a suspect being questioned as the temperature of a heater in his interrogation room was turned hotter and hotter. Intense interrogation had been permitted, he noted, “as a way to get testimony without the rack and the thumbscrew.” National sentiment, however, was beginning to turn against such torture. The U.S Senate opened an investigation into its use, and public opinion was further inflamed by a Broadway play titled The Third Degree about wringing a confession from an innocent murder suspect.

So at the time, the rights of the accused were evolving, and Brandeis’ ruling in the case — “A confession is voluntary in law if, and only if, it was, in fact, voluntarily made” — is seen as a precursor to the Miranda decision nearly 50 years later.

The murders also occurred against the backdrop of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. The men involved in the Washington case, however, were diplomats and members of the Shanghai elite — including the first Chinese person to study at the University of Virginia. Wan himself came from an Episcopalian family, had attended church-organized schools and spoke fluent English.

“They were not ‘Chinatown,’” Seligman said.

But being foreigners, they did not know what automatic rights they had under the American legal system, such as the right to seek a writ of habeas corpus, Seligman explained.

Since Wan’s appeals had become such a prominent legal case, with major press coverage, the courtroom was crowded when the U.S. Attorney’s Office finally dismissed Wan’s case and released him after his seven years in prison.

Seligman noted, too, that Brandeis’ decision applied to federal rights, so it was to Wan’s advantage that his case took place in the District.

Once free, Wan still had to abide by the Chinese Exclusion Act (not repealed until 1943) which required him — in order to remain in the United States — to be a diplomat, scholar or merchant. So in 1927 he set up a candy business on Park Road NW where he made “Wan’s Mandarin Creams.” But after several years, he closed his business and returned to China for good.

As to the question: “Did Wan really do it?” Seligman theorizes that Wan may have committed one of the murders, but not all three. In the book’s epilogue, Seligman notes that neither the police, prosecutors, the Justice Department nor any of the courts “ever conclusively answered the question of who actually killed the three Chinese diplomats.”
As his research wound down, Seligman found that sometimes even a capital city can be a small town. Looking through a city directory to see who else was living on Kalorama Road at the time of the murders, Seligman found a familiar name: J. Edgar Hoover.

This article also appears on the new local news website thedcline.org.