What is the third degree?

The term “Third Degree” is thought to originate during medieval times, when torture was often used. Torture was categorized by degree. The Third degree was amongst the most severe. It usually resulted, and often was intended to result, in the death of the tortured. Because the purpose of the torture during medieval times was often used to obtain confessions, the term was eventually applied as slang to police work in modern times. In particular, when it came to questioning a suspect. Third degree is popularly applied to a prolonged, searching examination of a suspected person by the police, especially when accompanied by unduly severe treatment, for the purpose of extorting from him an admission or a confession. In mathematics the third degree is the degree in a series between the second and the fourth: as, an equation of the third degree. But third degree as applied to police methods is probably derived from Freemasonry, the third degree in that order being that of Master Mason, which is said to be conferred with especially elaborate initiation ceremonies. The term, as applied to police methods, was popularized, if it was not actually coined, about 1911 by Major Richard Sylvester, superintendent of police in Washington, D. C. One writer observed that an officer of the law administers the first degree when, he makes the arrest, the second when the prisoner is placed in confinement, and the third when the prisoner is taken to private quarters for interrogation. Third-degree methods, as the term is now employed, may consist of such mental and physical tortures as binding the prisoner head and foot, questioning him continuously for several days without permitting him to eat or sleep, beating him with a rubber hose, which is very painful but which leaves no mark, threatening him with a display of dangerous weapons, and other brutal and cruel treatment designed to break down his morale and force him to confess. The United States Supreme Court in the “Wan case” declared that a confession obtained under duress is not proper evidence. Several times since then the same tribunal has reiterated its disapproval of the use of forced or third-degree confessions as a basis for convictions. The Federal Constitution provides in Amendment V that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself” and in Amendment VII that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”