An alleged prison gang leader from Hawaii boasted to police that he carved the initials of his gang into the chest of another inmate while the man was still barely alive, an act that Arizona prosecutors say is evidence the killer qualifies for execution under Arizona law.

Miti Maugaotega Jr., 37, was found guilty of first-degree murder last week in the slaying of inmate Bronson Nunuha, and is now in the second phase of his trial to determine if his case qualifies for the death penalty. Nunuha was murdered in his cell at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona on Feb. 18, 2010.

Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson presented gruesome details from the case to an Arizona jury on Tuesday, including autopsy pictures of Nunuha’s body. Pinal County Superior Court Judge Robert Olson paused the trial briefly when a juror reported feeling ill as the pictures were displayed on multiple screens in the courtroom.

Mahealani Meheula with mom, left, Viviana 'Tutu' Meheula and Harold Meheula head into Saguaro Correctional Facility. 5 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In what would be a first, Arizona may impose the death penalty on a Hawaii prisoner who is serving his sentence in the Saguaro Correctional Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Nunuha’s autopsy showed he suffered 124 small stab wounds and 28 large stab wounds in the attack, including wounds to his face, neck, chest, side and back as well as defensive wounds to his hands and forearms. His nose and larynx also were broken, according to Pinal County Medical Examiner John Hu.

Both men were Hawaii prisoners serving time at the Arizona facility because there was no room for them in Hawaii facilities. The island state was holding 996 inmates there under a contract with prison operator CoreCivic as of the end of November.

Hawaii abolished the death penalty in 1957, but Arizona continues the practice and has executed three prisoners so far this year.

Prisoners from Hawaii who serve time in Arizona are subject to Arizona law. Arizona prosecutes Hawaii inmates for assaults and other misconduct at Saguaro but has never imposed the death penalty on a prisoner convicted in Hawaii.

Court records portray Maugaotega as a “shot caller” or a leading member of the USO Family prison gang, which federal officials have described as the dominant gang in the Hawaii correctional system. Various court filings link Maugaotega to other violent incidents in prisons in Hawaii, Mississippi and Arizona.

Maugaotega also faces two aggravated assault charges in Arizona for allegedly stabbing two correctional officers at the Florence Correctional Center as the guards were escorting Maugaotega and another Hawaii prisoner back to their cells from a recreation yard on Sept. 2, 2011. That prison is now known as the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex.

Miti Maugaotega Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of another Hawaii inmate in Arizona. Hawaii Department of Public Safety

Arizona law breaks death penalty cases down into three phases. The first phase, which deals with guilt or innocence, ended for Maugaotega last week with his murder conviction. In the second phase now underway, the jury determines if there are aggravating circumstances that qualify the case for the death penalty.

The third phase determines if a death sentence will be imposed.

Maugaotega on Tuesday admitted to one “aggravating circumstance” under Arizona law, which is that he was previously convicted of a serious offense. He was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and other offenses for shooting a Punchbowl man in the chest after the man returned home in 2003 to find Maugaotega burglarizing the property.

He later pleaded no contest to 10 other felonies in 2004 related to four other cases that included a home-invasion robbery and sexual assault of a 55-year-old woman. He will not be eligible for parole for those crimes in Hawaii until 2207.

Arizona prosecutors are also attempting to prove Maugaotega killed Nunuha in “an especially cruel or especially heinous and depraved manner” to qualify the case for the death penalty.

Julie Hall, defense attorney for Maugaotega, told the jury that the legal definitions of the terms “cruel, heinous and depraved” require that there be specific elements of gratuitous violence and mutilation of the victim in the crime, and the jury must apply those technical definitions to the facts in the case.

“When you do that, the evidence you heard in the first phase, you’ll find that aggravating factor has not been proven,” she said.

But Johnson said the standard was met. He described the gory scene in the prison cell after Nunuha was attacked and dragged off the top bunk, and noted that Maugaotega volunteered to an investigator that he carved the letters “USO” on Nunuha’s chest while Nunuha was still breathing.

“It’s volunteered, you heard the interviews and the recordings,” Johnson told the jury. “Mutilation of Bronson Nunuha’s body just to make a statement — that is needless mutilation, and also gratuitous violence.”

“What he did in this case was above and beyond, because he wanted to send a message,” Johnson said.

The jury began deliberations Tuesday to determine if aggravating conditions surrounding the Nunuha murder qualify the case for the death penalty.

Maugaotega’s accomplice in the killing was Micah Kanahele, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the case in 2017. Arizona prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty for Kanahele.

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