China Then and Now

A civil rights breakthrough: Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun

When Chinese immigrants first reached the United States, they were routinely denied basic civil rights. One of the most important of these rights, even if it's rarely used, is the right to testify in court. Without that right it can be impossible to obtain justice against someone who has wronged you, or to effectively defend yourself against criminal charges. In 1882, in an otherwise tragic story, a Chinese immigrant gained the right to testify in a New Mexico court. The precedent set during the trial gave new rights to Asian immigrants across the West. The following is based on an article by John Wunder.reference

On February 4, 1882, Yee Shun arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico, by train. At the time he was twenty years old. Las Vegas was a bustling business center of almost 2,000 people. The local Chinatown (founded, like so many others in the West, by railroad workers) included laundries, restaurants, and boarding houses. Yee Shun went there, looking for a friend, and found himself in John Lee's laundry. He was sitting in the back of the laundry when someone pulled out a gun and shot John Lee. The survivors then ran from the scene. A couple out for an evening stroll heard the shots and saw Shun leaving the area, and the husband had the town marshal arrest Shun. In the trial that followed, Jo Chinaman—one of the Chinese who witnessed the shooting—identified Shun as the killer. Two other Chinese men who had been there contradicted Chinaman's testimony.

As John Wunder's review of the transcript and other evidence makes clear, the trial was a classic case of poor mans's justice. Shun was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence. When his appeal failed, Shun hanged himself in Leavenworth Prison.

The double tragedy—John Lee's death, then Yee Shun's—had an unexpected consequence. In an attempt to overturn the conviction, Shun's attorney argued that because Jo Chinaman was "of the Chinese religion," he could not take an oath acceptable to a U.S. court, and thus could not testify against Shun. New Mexico's territorial supreme court disagreed, finding that it was not necessary to be part of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition to take a binding oath. While the court's decision meant the end of Shun's appeal, it also meant that a U.S. court had found that Chinese immigrants' testimony was admissible. In subsequent years, the precedent established by Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun spread to other courts. In 1909, for example, the Nebraska Supreme Court invoked the case in allowing testimony by a Japanese immigrant.

Troubled lives sometimes lead to legal decisions that protect us all. In 1966, for example, Ernesto Miranda's conviction was voided after police failed to tell him of his rights before extracting a confession; ever since, the statements read to an arrested suspect have been known as "Miranda rights." Similarly, a murder in a Las Vegas, New Mexico laundry in 1882, along with the trial that followed, helped ensure that Asian immigrants could speak out in American courts of law.

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Page last revised on August 26, 2014.
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