A 22-year-old Cochiti Pueblo member, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder a quarter-century ago recently failed to convince a three-judge panel that flaws in bullet lead analysis had an impact on his conviction.
Daniel Chalan Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting and bludgeoning to death a convenience store worker after an alleged drinking bout on tribal land. Chalan, was at one time a law enforcement officer for the pueblo, was also convicted of robbery and two counts of using a firearm during commission of a felony, court records showed.
During a four-day trial in 1985, one witness, FBI Special Agent Earnest Peele, “testified about the composition of the bullet fragments found at the crime scene,” according to the court. “Using a technique known as Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA), Peele concluded that the fragments found at the crime scene fell into three groups” similar enough that the bullets “likely came from the same box of bullets or from boxes of bullets manufactured around the same time.”
More than 20 years later, Chalan received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s office stating that the FBI had ceased using the CBLA technique and noting that “Agent Peele’s trial testimony may have been misleading.”
As a result, Chalan argued to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that “he could not have discovered the deficiencies of the CBLA” at the time of his first, direct appeal and noted that the letter from the U.S. Attorney’s office “was not—and could not have been—part of the record on direct appeal.” The court agreed, but said Chalan would have had to show that the error had a substantial negative influence on the jury’s verdict.
In fact, the FBI agent did not claim all the bullet fragments came from the same source, he did not tie the fragments to Chalan in any way, and Chalan confessed to the murder, relaying knowledge about details of the crime scene, the court pointed out.
Leading the 10th Circuit panel to dismiss the appeal as the result of no apparent impact on Chalan’s conviction.