Assassinations, Accusations, & America:
Life Before Miranda Rights

3 Assassinations, International Intrigue,
& Your Right to Remain Silent…


“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you. You have the right to an attorney….”  Those words – which you may recognize from shows or movies – are the words used to inform someone who is being arrested if their Miranda Rights.   They’re not just for entertainment though – they are very real rights every American is entitled to, but they have only been read to suspects since 1966.  That process came about as a result of a Supreme Court decision, but their origins date back much earlier. In fact, the process of reading a suspect their Miranda Rights is rooted in a historical event that took place in 1919.

That year, a triple murder of foreign diplomats occurred in Washington D.C. (a diplomat is someone who acts as the representative of a foreign government). The three victims all worked for the Chinese Educational Mission before being assassinated. When there were no leads or clear motives, the police focused in on the only suspect they had.

On the day of the assassinations, a young Chinese student named Ziang Sung Wan had been seen at the house where the killings had occurred. The police went to his home in New York and after searching it without a warrant, pressured Wan (who was suffering from a flu at the time) into going back to Washington D.C.  with them.  Upon their arrival, the authorities isolated Ziang in a hotel room and held him without formally placing him under formal arrest.  After extended periods of isolation and interrogation that lasted more than 9 days, they eventually pressured him into making a confession.

During trial for the murders, Wan took back his confession, saying that he only confessed to make the detectives’ interrogation come to an end. The judge refused to acknowledge Wan’s statement despite the conditions that were used to obtain his confession.  Eventually, Wan was found guilty of first degree-murder.  At the time, the penalty for a guilty first-degree murder conviction was death-by-hanging.

Wan’s case was one of many at the time that had stirred debate among judges and lawyers in the country over which police conduct and interrogation methods were lawful, and which of those methods and behaviors were unlawful.  At the same time, Ziang’s attorneys were filing appeals and pursuing their client’s acquittal relentlessly, knowing that his life was on the line.  Eventually Ziang’s lawyers managed to get his case heard by the Supreme Court of The United States (SCOTUS).

As a result of the raging national debate in the law community over police tactics and the constitutional questions raised by Ziang’s case, one justice was tasked with drafting up a decision that would lay the groundwork for the Miranda Rights we know today.

Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote the court’s decision, in which the court interpreted the Fifth Amendment as permitting only volunteer confessions as being admissible as evidence in federal court proceedings, and that a confession could be coerced involuntarily even if an explicit threat had not made.

If that’s too wordy, think about it like this: The police didn’t tell Ziang “If you don’t confess we’re going to break your legs”.  Because they held him for 9 days though – while he was sick, in uncomfortable conditions, and without telling him when they would stop –  they had basically forced him to confess to end the torment he was experiencing.

Unfortunately, because Wan had been tried in Washington D.C. (which is a federal jurisdiction) the new standard only applied to cases in federal courts. The ruling wouldn’t apply to states or local court proceedings for years.  The standard created by Justice Brandeis’ ruling also ended up being interpreted in a variety of ways for decades after it was first issued.  For years after the ruling, cases ended up before SCOTUS that would produce rulings which added more specificity to Justice Brandeis’ initial court opinion on Ziang’s case.

Eventually, in 1966 Chief Justice Earl Warren would mandate safeguards for suspects dealing with police in the opinion he issued for SCOTUS in the case of Miranda v. Arizona.  Those safeguards would eventually develop into the Miranda Rights most people are familiar with today. His writings leaned heavily on the court opinion issued in response to Wan’s case, making it clear the Ziang Sung Wan v. United States is the legal soil from which the Miranda Rights we know today grew from.

Thanks to the Wan and Miranda decisions, today suspects are informed that they have the right to remain silent, that anything they say may be used against them in the court of law, that they have the right to counsel, and that if they are unable to afford one, an attorney will be appointed for them.


1) Now that you know some of the history behind Miranda Rights, do you have any feelings about your right to remain silent? What questions do you have about your right to remain silent?

2)      TV may lead you to think that the right to remain silent is only used by criminals who are done talking to police and want to leave the interview.  That’s not the case at all though.  What are some situations that could lead someone to exercise their right to remain silent?

3)      Suppose you found yourself needing to exercising your right to remain silent.  What would that look like?  Simply saying “I wouldn’t talk” isn’t enough: Tell us Why you might have decided to exercise your right, what you would do while exercising that right, how you would be treated while exercising the right, and the possible benefits and consequences of remaining silent.

Be sure to provide full explanations for each of your answers. For more details, you can read the article this piece was sourced from here:


Contributed by- J. Plummer

assasinations, court, GHaY, History & You, International Intrigue, Law Related Education, Law Related History, Miranda rights, Project REAL, Project REAL NV, Project Real Org, Rights, the constitution,

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