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The Age of Andrew Jackson
Freeing the Presses
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The Third DegreeThe Third Degree

The Triple Murder That Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice

Scott D. Seligman

Narrated by Christopher T. Carley

Available from Audible

Book published by University of Nebraska Press

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.

Scott D. Seligman is a writer and historian. He is the author of several books, including 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.


“This is a book with real crime-noir appeal and serious implications. Braiding together the stories of the crime, the accused, and the legal consequences highlights the significance of the grisly events, bringing potboiler intrigue to legal matters. The still-unsolved murder of the three Chinese diplomats is a riveting case, and Seligman deftly investigates the steps taken to protect others from the cruelty and oversight Wan suffered through at the hands of the American policing and legal systems.”

—Meredith Grahl Counts, Foreword Reviews

“Seligman writes with speed and interest about the often dry world of criminal law. The Third Degree is a fascinating and easy read that can be consumed in one sitting. If you do decide to do so, then you will end the day much smarter, for this book is highly informative.”

—Benjamin Welton, New York Journal of Books

“A dramatic and insightful read for anybody who cares about human rights and wants to understand the roots of the Miranda warning.”

—Anna Faktorovich, Pennsylvania Literary Journal

The Third Degree tells a fascinating story and raises some significant questions about the rights and protections of people—especially those regarded as “outsiders”—who are brought into contact with the criminal justice system.”

—Mary Welek Atwell, Criminal Law and Justice Books

“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.”

—Lee Sturtevant, DC Line

“Highly recommended reading for history, legal and true crime buffs.”

—Sheri Hoyte, Reader Views

“In the tradition of such classics as Gideon’s Trumpet, The Third Degree provides the human story behind a seminal Supreme Court decision. Scott D. Seligman, a meticulous researcher and an excellent writer, fills gaps in our knowledge with a story that has never been told before. Anyone interested in modern American history, the lives of early immigrants, or the justice system in its formative years will find this book of interest.”

—Ira Belkin, executive director of the U.S. Asia Institute and adjunct professor at New York University School of Law

“Scott D. Seligman has recovered from history a ghastly true crime from 1919 that had a significant impact on the direction of the U.S. justice system.... Seligman’s deep knowledge of China, the history of America’s Chinese communities, and the U.S. legal system combine to reveal this story that was a landmark case in how we protect minorities and the weak within the law and why we must guard hard-won legal protections.”

—Paul French, author of the Edgar Award–winning Midnight in Peking

“With The Third Degree, Seligman finds himself the bona fide creator of the Chinese American sublime. One marvels at Seligman’s ability to weave complex, nuanced, unpublished research—often found in multiple dialects—into a moreish masterpiece.”

—Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of the Museum of Chinese in America

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University Press Audiobooks