A Hawaii prisoner who murdered another inmate while they were both serving their sentences in an Arizona prison is eligible for execution under Arizona law, according to a decision by a jury on Wednesday.

The 12 jurors deliberated for about a day before finding that Miti Maugaotega Jr., 37, is eligible for the death penalty in the case because of the “especially cruel” nature of the murder of Bronson Nunuha more than a dozen years ago. That same Arizona jury last week found Maugaotega guilty of first-degree murder in Nunuha’s slaying.

Nunuha, 26, was stabbed more than 150 times when he was attacked in his cell at Saguaro Correctional Center on Feb. 18, 2010. Maugaotega, one of Nunuha’s attackers, told an investigator he carved the initials of the prison gang USO Family into Nunaha’s chest while Nunuha was still alive.

The same Arizona jury will reconvene in January to hear additional evidence as well as any mitigating factors that weigh in Maugaotega’s favor before finally deciding if he will be sentenced to death.

Saguaro Correctional Facility Eloy Arizona clouds and mountain range. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil beat
The privately run Saguaro Correctional Facility holds nearly 1,000 inmates from Hawaii because there is no room for them in Hawaii prisons. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Nunuha’s mother Davina Beltran said in an interview Wednesday she believes Maugaotega will spend the rest of his life in prison no matter what happens next, and “I think it might be better if they deal with it that way. Maybe he might change his life, you know?”

“It’s not going to bring my son back,” she said of the death penalty. “It’s like they’re taking a life for another life.”

She added: “If they’re going to do that — the death penalty — it’s going to be on them, it’s not going to be on anybody else.”

Hawaii holds nearly 1,000 of its prisoners in the privately run Saguaro facility because there is no room for them in Hawaii prisons. Those inmates are subject to Arizona law while serving time in that state, but Arizona has never before sentenced a Hawaii inmate to death for crimes committed while in custody there.

Hawaii banned capital punishment in 1957, and the Legislature has not seriously considered reinstating the death penalty in many years. Arizona, meanwhile, has language in its state constitution specifically authorizing executions by lethal injection. That state has executed three prisoners so far this year.

Prison inmate Miti Maugaotega Jr. has been convicted of first-degree murder in the slaying of Bronson Nunuha at Saguaro Correctional Center in 2010, and could face the death penalty in Arizona. Hawaii Department of Public Safety

Maugaotega was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and other offenses after he shot a Punchbowl man in the chest when the man arrived home in 2003 to find Maugaotega burglarizing the property. Maugaotega confronted the homeowner and demanded money before shooting him.

Maugaotega was 17 at the time he was arrested, and eventually pleaded no contest to 10 other felonies related to other cases that included a home-invasion robbery and the sexual assault of a 55-year-old woman.

Hawaii imposed consecutive sentences and long minimum terms in those cases, and the earliest Maugaotega will be eligible for parole for those convictions will be in 2207.

He was sent to the mainland to serve his time, and court filings suggest he has been involved in other violent incidents in prisons in Hawaii, Mississippi and Arizona. He has two aggravated assault charges still pending in Arizona for allegedly stabbing two correctional officers at the Florence Correctional Center in 2011.

Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson portrayed Maugaotega during his trial as the “tip of the spear” for the USO Family prison gang. He said Maugaotega was proud of his status inside and told an investigator that “anybody who fucks up in our family, I’m in charge of taking them out.”

Johnson said Maugaotega admitted to attacking Nunuha because he was “talking shit,” but Maugaotega’s defense lawyer Jack Earley told the Arizona jury last week that Nunuha had threatened Maugaotega’s family in Hawaii. Earley said Maugaotega was alarmed by the threats because Nunuha was slated to be released from prison long before Maugaotega.

Maugaotega’s co-defendant Micah Kanahele pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 2017 in the killing of Nunuha, and prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty in Kanahele’s case.

Nunuha’s family sued prison operator Corrections Corporation of America and the state of Hawaii in 2012 in connection with Nunuha’s murder, and that lawsuit was later settled.

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