A Hawaii prisoner is facing the death penalty after being convicted in Arizona on Friday of first-degree murder for killing another inmate in 2010 in a case that raises new concerns about Hawaii’s longstanding practice of exporting its prison inmates to the mainland.

Slain inmate Bronson Nunuha was attacked as he was curled up on his bunk in his cell in a private prison called Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona — stabbed 140 times. His attackers carved the initials of a prison gang called USO Family into his chest.

Hawaii ended capital punishment 65 years ago — two years before statehood — but Arizona prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Miti Maugaotega Jr., who along with another inmate killed Nunuha on Feb. 18, 2010.

A 12-member Arizona jury convicted Maugaotega of first-degree murder on Friday after a day of deliberations, but acquitted him of a charge of participating in a criminal syndicate. That concluded the first phase of the case in Pinal County Superior Court.

Saguaro Correctional Facility. People walking around inside of fences. Eloy, Arizona 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona in 2016. Hawaii now holds more than 900 prison inmates at the facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The second phase begins next week as the same jury considers whether there were aggravating circumstances surrounding the slaying that would qualify the case for the death penalty.

Hawaii has held prisoners at Saguaro prison in Arizona since 2007 because there is no room for them in Hawaii facilities. As of the end of November the Hawaii Department of Public Safety was holding 966 inmates at Saguaro, which is operated by the private prison company CoreCivic.

Hawaii prisoners who serve time in Arizona are subject to Arizona law, and Arizona routinely prosecutes Hawaii inmates for assaults and other misconduct at Saguaro. However, that state has never imposed the death penalty on a Hawaii convict.

The Arizona Republic reported in early October that Arizona now has 111 prisoners on its death row. It paused all executions for eight years after a particularly controversial case in 2014 where a prisoner took nearly two hours to die by lethal injection, but resumed executions this year. Three inmates have been put to death in Arizona so far in 2022.

Carrie Ann Shirota, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said Maugaotega’s case is a “wake-up call” for Hawaii political leaders, who should finally take steps to end the practice of sending prisoners out of state to serve their time.

“The ACLU of Hawaii condemns the practice of transferring people who are incarcerated to private, for-profit prisons on the American continent,” she said. “The state of Arizona should not have the right to kill people from Hawaii who are physically incarcerated within their boundaries simply because our state leaders have chosen to export our people thousands of miles away from their homes and families.”

“The people of Hawaii recognized that capital punishment is a barbaric and brutal institution, and rightly abolished the death penalty in 1957,” she said. “The ACLU of Hawaii strongly opposes the death penalty as it inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law.”

Miti Maugaotega Jr. on Friday was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2010 slaying of Bronson Nunuha in an Arizona prison. Maugaotega could face the death penalty. Hawaii Department of Public Safety

The case also troubles Christin Johnson, coordinator of the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission. She opposes both the death penalty and private prisons, and called this a “devastatingly sad case.”

“I understand that it’s not a question of who did this crime, I understand that he’s guilty, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he does come from Hawaii, he did not have a choice in living in Arizona” because the state sent him there, she said. “This is yet again another negative factor of using private entities and sending Hawaii inmates 3,000 miles away.”

Maugaotega was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and other offenses when he shot a Punchbowl man in the chest after the man returned home in 2003 to find Maugaotega burglarizing the property. Maugaotega confronted the homeowner with a .45-caliber handgun and demanded money before shooting him.

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

Hawaii imposed consecutive sentences for some of those convictions as well as a long mandatory prison term for use of a firearm while committing a felony, and the Department of Public Safety said in a statement on Friday the earliest Maugaotega will be eligible for parole for those cases will be in 2207.

The Hawaii Paroling Authority conceivably could someday reduce Maugaotega’s consecutive minimum terms of imprisonment and parole him sooner, but it appears more likely at this point he will live out his days in prison on the strength of his Hawaii convictions.

If he is ever paroled from the Hawaii system, he would be handed over to Arizona authorities, according to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

Maugaotega, now 37, was transferred to a prison on the mainland in 2005 after his Hawaii convictions, and Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson said Maugaotega became the “tip of the spear” for the USO Family prison gang.

In closing arguments to the Arizona jury on Thursday, Johnson 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.”

Maugaotega admitted he participated in Nunuha’s murder, and told an investigator that Nunuha had been “talking shit, and fucking with him, and fucking with USO,” Johnson told the jury. After the murder, Maugaotega said that “I did that for myself, and for the fam,” Johnson said.

Johnson told the jury that when Maugaotega walked into Bronson’s cell, “Bronson was curled up in a ball, praying to God that he didn’t have a weapon, hopeful that it was just going to be a beating, hopeful that he would decide to spare his life, hopeful that that shank in his hand didn’t mean what he thought it meant when he saw it, hopeful that he wasn’t going to be executed for violating ‘Miti’s law.’”

A lawsuit filed in connection with Bronson’s murder later alleged that during and after the killing, a cluster of prisoners distracted the lone prison staffer who was on duty in that unit at the time. Other inmates mopped up bloody footprints leading away from Nunuha’s cell after the attack, and Nunuha’s attackers showered, changed clothes, and rejoined the other prisoners, according to the lawsuit.

Micah Kanahele
Micah Kanahele Hawaii Department of Public Safety

Maugaotega’s defense lawyer Jack Earley told the Arizona jury last week that Nunuha, 26, had threatened Maugaotega’s family in Hawaii. Maugaotega was alarmed by the threats because Nunuha would be released from prison long before Maugaotega, and Earley suggested Maugaotega’s blood relatives were the “family” he referred to in his statements to the authorities.

Maugaotega’s co-defendant Micah Kanahele pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 2017 in the killing of Nunuha, and prosecutors opted not to pursue the death penalty in Kanahele’s case. Public Safety officials in Hawaii declined to say where Kanahele is being held now, citing “safety and security” reasons.

Nunuha’s family sued Corrections Corporation of America and the state of Hawaii in 2012 in connection with the murder, and that lawsuit was later settled. The ACLU of Hawaii and the Vermont-based nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center represented the family in that case, which alleged in part that Nunuha should have been returned to Hawaii before he was killed.

According to the lawsuit, state law required that Nunuha be brought back to Hawaii to serve the last year of his sentence. Instead, Nunuha remained in Arizona, and was serving the final nine months of a five-year sentence for burglary and criminal property damage when he was killed.

The lawsuit also alleged the unit where Nunuha was housed was inadequately staffed, and the guards ignored Nunuha’s requests to be transferred out of the unit after he was threatened by gang members. CCA later changed its name to CoreCivic.

The lawsuit also describes four other violent incidents that allegedly involved Maugaotega in prisons in Hawaii and Mississippi before he killed Nunuha at Saguaro in Arizona.

For some in Hawaii, the possibility that Maugaotega could face the death penalty in Arizona adds to their unhappiness with Hawaii’s decision to send inmates to mainland prisons, which has been going on for more than 25 years.

Hawaii state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Karl Rhoads said Friday the case is just one more reason Hawaii should not house prisoners on the mainland. He opposes the death penalty because of the risk that the state could make an irreversible mistake by executing an innocent person.

Saguaro Correctional Center Eloy Arizona sign, entrance into parking lot.
The 2010 murder of 26-year-old inmate Bronson Nunuha at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona led to a death penalty prosecution more than a dozen years later. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Even in cases where there are confessions, “you don’t really know, and once you kill them, you can’t take it back. That’s my objection,” Rhoads said. He also believes the death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent because what deters people from committing crimes is the likelihood that they will be caught.

Rhoads also noted the state spends tens of millions of dollars out of state each year to pay for housing inmates in Saguaro, money he believes should stay here, circulating in the Hawaii economy.

He is also concerned that sending inmates to other states makes it extremely difficult for them to maintain relationships with their families. Research shows family ties help parolees to succeed and stay out of trouble after they are released.

“I would argue that it would be best not to send them up there for other reasons,” he said of the Arizona inmates.

State Rep. Sonny Ganaden, a lawyer who has represented Maugaotega, is even more critical of how his case is playing out.

“I think it’s legally wrong, and I think it’s morally wrong,” said Ganaden. “This is part of the problem, that we still have a system of mass incarceration in Hawaii that leads to morally absurd results. It’s absurd, we shouldn’t be facing this. This whole thing shouldn’t have happened.”

He said Hawaii needs to end its dealings with private prisons, and said the state has “a whole lot of work to do” to reduce incarceration and improve public safety. “This is not just about Miti, this is about his victim, too, and the possibility of future victims being so far away from their families,” Ganaden said.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm declined to comment on the case, and Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said only that “crimes committed in Arizona fall under Arizona state law and are prosecuted through the Arizona criminal justice system.”

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author