“You have the right to remain silent.”
A fixture of “Law and Order” and other cop shows on TV, the Miranda Rights did not exist a century ago when three Chinese diplomats were found murdered here in Washington. The suspect was a young Chinese immigrant.
This is his story.
The Third Degree: The Triple Murder that shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice is the latest book on the Chinese-American experience by neighbor Scott Seligman. (We have featured two of his previous books: Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown and The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo.)
Seligman describes his latest work as “part mystery, part courtroom drama and part landmark legal case” – one that eventually led to the Miranda Rights we know today.
Seligman made some surprising connections while researching this true-life legal thriller.
Forest Hills Connection: How did you first come across this story?
Scott Seligman: Most story-behind-the-court-case books get their start when a legal scholar decides to try to get to the root of a landmark case. But this book began in precisely the opposite way. I am not an attorney, still less a legal scholar. I found my way to this story from a web search that led me to a 1919 edition of the old Washington Star. There was a front page article about the mysterious murder of three Chinese diplomats in a townhouse on Kalorama Road, a block from where I used to live. It sounded like a pretty interesting case, so I decided to do some digging.
FHC: What made you decide to write a book about it?
Seligman: I’ve written about early Chinese-American history in the past, and this story, in which a young Chinese man was browbeaten into a confession by the Washington police, seemed compelling in its own right. But I was months into the research before I fully grasped its implications. What hit the ball out of the park for me was when I discovered its straight-line connection to the Miranda case several decades later!
FHC: How did you do your research? What sources did you use?
Seligman: Primarily old newspapers, which are increasingly being scanned and made keyword searchable online. I eventually recovered a couple of thousand articles about this story. But I also found trial transcripts, which are fabulous resources when you’re writing narrative nonfiction, as well as interviews and a handful of memoirs from the people who were involved in it. Perhaps the most exciting experience was at the National Archives, where they let me peruse Justice Louis Brandeis’ handwritten drafts of the Supreme Court ruling in the case, and read over the other justices’ notes in which they discussed how they intended to vote and why.
FHC: What surprised you the most about what you unearthed?
Seligman: I never imagined that a Chinese defendant in the 1920s was an early impetus for the “Miranda rights” we hear read every day on TV police shows, and I doubt most other people did, either. That was a real revelation!
FHC: How has this story impacted you as a writer and a person?
Seligman: One of the true rewards of writing this sort of history comes from the people you meet along the way. And in this case, I got help from descendants of one of the victims – who just happen to live three blocks away from me and who have become fast friends! There’s also a lot of satisfaction in rediscovering the forgotten lives of early immigrants, because this is an area of American history about which relatively little has been written. Finally, as a writer, I think the experience taught me that even a lay person like me who never went to law school can – with some effort and some guidance – understand a complex area of the law to which I hadn’t given much thought in the past.
The Third Degree (May 2018, Potomac Books) is available at Politics and Prose and other bookstores.