266 U.S. 1 (1924), 127, Ziang Sung Wan v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 127
Citation:266 U.S. 1, 45 S.Ct. 1, 69 L.Ed. 131
Party Name:Ziang Sung Wan v. United States
Case Date:October 13, 1924
Court:United States Supreme Court

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266 U.S. 1 (1924)

45 S.Ct. 1, 69 L.Ed. 131

Ziang Sung Wan


United States

No. 127

United States Supreme Court

Oct. 13, 1924

Argued April 7, 8, 1924




1. A bill of exceptions in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, held properly settled by the Chief Justice of that court where filed in due time but after the death of the justice who presided at the trial. P. 9.

2. A confession of guilt is voluntary in law if, and only if, it was in fact voluntarily made. P. 14.

3. In the federal courts, the requisite of voluntariness is not satisfied by establishing merely that the confession was not induced by a promise or threat. Id.

4. A confession may have been given voluntarily although it was made to police officers while the maker was in custody, and in answer to an examination conducted by them. Id.

5. But a confession obtained by compulsion must be excluded whatever may have been the character of the compulsion, and whether the compulsion was applied in a judicial proceeding or otherwise. Id.

6. Where the undisputed facts show that oral statements and a written confession, offered in evidence against a defendant charged with murder, were obtained through compulsion applied by police officers, they should be excluded from the jury. P. 15.

289 F. 908, 53 App.D.C. 250, reversed.

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Certiorari to a judgment of the court of appeals of the District of Columbia, affirming a sentence for murder.

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BRANDEIS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

On January 31, 1919, the police department of the District of Columbia learned that three Chinamen, the inmates of a house in Washington occupied by the Chinese Educational Mission, had been murdered. They were known to have been alive late in the evening of January 29. Police officers were told by Li, a student, that, earlier on the same evening, he had seen at the Mission a resident of New York City named Wan. Acting under instructions of the superintendent of police, two detectives started immediately for New York, taking Li with them. On February 1, they entered Wan's room in a lodging house, found him there, and brought him to Washington. He was not formally arrested until February 9. Later

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he was indicted in the Supreme Court of the District for the murder of one of the Chinamen, was found guilty, and was sentenced to be hanged. The Court of Appeals of the District affirmed the judgment. 289 F. 908. A writ of certiorari was granted. 263 U.S. 693.

The main question for decision1 is whether, on the facts disclosed in the [45 S.Ct. 2] testimony of the superintendent of police, three detectives, and the chief medical officer of the jail, the trial court erred in admitting as evidence statements made by the defendant to the police officers before and shortly after his formal arrest.2 Four of the statements were oral. These, if admissible, were important evidence. The fifth was a stenographic report of an interrogation of the defendant conducted by the detectives after the arrest. This report contained a full confession. The introduction of each of the statements was duly objected to on the ground that the government failed to show that it had been voluntarily made and that, from the testimony of its own witnesses, the contrary appeared. The court admitted the statements. It later charged the jury:

The test of the case, and the inquiry that you will have to

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make in answer is, did the questioning, did the physical condition, did the importunate questioning, if you choose to call it so, render the confession made by the defendant not his own, but did it substitute for his will the will of another, and thus was it or not his voluntary act?

Wan was a native of China. He had come to the United States in 1916 at the age of 22, as a student. In 1918, he engaged in a business which proved unsuccessful. Since December of that year, or earlier, his health had been bad. He had an attack of Spanish influenza. He suffered continuously from a chronic stomach trouble which led him to eat sparingly and irregularly. When the detectives entered his room unannounced, they found him in bed. They had no search warrant, but they made a search of the room and his effects, including the bed in which he lay. They were accompanied by a New York police officer, but they did not arrest Wan. They requested that he return with them to Washington. He told them he was too sick. Li, who had been left waiting outside the closed door and was called in, told Wan that both of them were suspected of the murder. Then Wan consented to go with the detectives to Washington.

On arrival in Washington, Wan was not put formally under arrest, but he was taken to a secluded room. In the presence of three detectives, the superintendent of police, and Li, he was subjected there to questioning for five or six hours. Late in the evening of that first day, the detectives took him to Hotel Dewey, and, without entering his name in the hotel registry, placed him in a bedroom on an upper floor. In that room he was detained continuously one week. Throughout the period, he was sick and, most of the time, in bed. A physician was repeatedly called. It was a police surgeon who came. In vain, Wan asked to see his brother, with whom he lived in New York, who had nursed him in his illness, who had come to Washington at his request in January, who had returned with

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him to New York, and whom, as he later learned, the detectives had also...

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