FLORENCE, Arizona — A Hawaii prison inmate facing the death penalty in Arizona was described by his lawyer Tuesday as a talented artist who suffered from an extremely traumatic childhood, including an accident that left him horribly burned.

Defense lawyer Jack Earley also told an Arizona jury that convicted murderer Miti Maugaotega Jr. at one time was being groomed to lead his Samoan clan. Today he remains an important figure in the lives of his family, and he counsels younger family members to avoid his mistakes and stay out of prison, Earley said.

“He’s not perfect, he’s not a saint, he lives where he is, I’m not making excuses for him,” Earley said. “But for him, there is human value. It is there, it is strong, and I’m going to ask you to allow him to live.”

Attorneys consult with Miti Maugaotega Jr. during the penalty phase of his trial. In the weeks ahead, an Arizona jury will decide if he should be sentenced to death. Paul Ingram/Civil Beat/2023

Maugaotega, 37, was convicted of first-degree murder last month for the Feb. 18, 2010, murder of inmate Bronson Nunuha at the Arizona prison where both men were housed. The 12-member jury will decide whether Maugaotega should get a life sentence without parole or the death penalty.

Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson painted a dramatically different picture of Maugaotega from the description offered by the defense lawyer, portraying Maugaotega as  “people’s worst nightmare.”

Johnson described for the jury in explicit detail Maugaotega’s rape of a 57-year-old woman in a Honolulu apartment during a home-invasion robbery in 2003, and recounted how Maugaotega shot a Punchbowl man in the chest with a .45-caliber pistol that same year when the man returned home to find Maugaotega burglarizing the property.

“I’m not making excuses for him. But for him, there is human value. It is there, it is strong, and I’m going to ask you to allow him to live.” — Defense Attorney Jack Earley

The jury already has heard gory descriptions of the slaying of Nunuha, who was dragged off his bunk in his cell in the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, and stabbed more than 150 times by Maugaotega and another inmate. Maugaotega told police he carved the initials of his gang on Nunuha’s chest, according to trial testimony.

“What he did to Bronson Nunuha is exactly who he is, and who he has been,” Johnson told the jury. “For him, violence like you saw, the pain that you saw — to him, that’s just a Thursday.”

Johnson also alleged Maugaotega stabbed two correctional officers in 2011 with homemade knives or “shanks” he made in his cell. Criminal charges are pending in that case.

Rival Gangs

Maugaotega has been described as a leader of the USO Family prison gang, which federal officials have described as the dominant gang in the Hawaii correctional system.

But after Maugaotega was moved to the Pinal County Jail and separated from other Hawaii prisoners, he “morphed” and entered into a cooperative relationship with Arizona Mexican Mafia, Johnson said. He showed a picture of a tattoo on Maugaotega to the jury that Johnson said demonstrates that more recent gang affiliation.

“The state vehemently disagrees that this defendant is remorseful for anything he’s ever done,” Johnson said.

Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson during arguments in a Florence, Arizona courtroom on Tuesday. Johnson alleged Maugaotega has shown no remorse for his crimes. Paul Ingram/Civil Beat/2023

Hawaii holds nearly 1,000 prisoners in the privately run Saguaro Correctional Facility because there is no room for them in Hawaii facilities. 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, but Arizona has language in its state constitution specifically authorizing executions by lethal injection. That state executed three prisoners last year.

Maugaotega wrote a letter to former Gov. Linda Lingle in 2010 after the Nunuha murder taking full responsibility for the killing and complaining that prison operator Corrections Corp. of America — later renamed CoreCivic — was holding members of rival gangs in the same housing unit at Saguaro.

He explained that Nunuha was affiliated with a gang known as West Side and warned that if the private prison company “keeps running the prison the way it is now, the violence won’t stop.”

He also apologized in the letter for the murder, saying that “it was either me or Bronson Nunuha that day. There is nothing I can say or do that will take away the pain I caused Bronson Nunuha’s family. But I hope they have it in their hearts to forgive me one day. I can’t undo what I did, so I am willing to face whatever punishment that comes my way.”

“The state vehemently disagrees that this defendant is remorseful for anything he’s ever done.” — Prosecutor Patrick Johnson

Nunuha’s mother Davina Beltran read a letter to the jury in Pinal County Superior Court on Tuesday that described Nunuha as “a loving son, brother, uncle, father and nephew, cousin, friend, grandson, and all around great guy. He was loved by many, and he also made everyone laugh,” she said. “He would give the shirt off his back if he had to.”

She said Nunuha made sure her youngest children were fed and went to school, and the news that he had been killed in prison was devastating. “He was the big brother to my youngest children, and he was ripped from us,” Beltran said. Her children are still trying to cope with his death.

Nunuha was serving the last nine months of a five-year sentence for burglary and criminal property damage when he was killed, according to court records. Beltran said in an interview last month that “it might be better” if Maugaotega were allowed to live the rest of his life in prison, but did not mention that in her statement to the jury on Tuesday.

Jack Earley, defense attorney for Miti Maugaotega Jr., argued a point on Tuesday. Early said of Maugaotega: “Our creator is not through with him yet. “ Paul Ingram/Civil Beat/2023

Earley described Maugaotega’s childhood and youth in American Samoa and Hawaii for the jury, including an accident when Maugaotega was 4 and was somehow doused with gasoline and set on fire. He suffered third-degree burns over much of his body, and had to endure excruciating burn treatments, Earley said.

Troubled Childhood

As a teenager Maugaotega later moved to a “gang-infested” Waipahu neighborhood, and endured beatings from family members who were upset when he began to get in trouble, Earley said. Maugaotega responded to positive and protective influences as a youth, but those positive connections did not last long, Earley told the jury.

He became involved in the juvenile court system, and at 17 was convicted for a crime spree that included attempted murder for the Punchbowl shooting and 10 other felonies including the home-invasion robbery and sexual assault.

According to the state Department of Public Safety, Maugaotega will not be eligible for parole for his convictions in Hawaii until 2207.

Even so, Earley said he will present the jury with evidence of Maugaotega’s humanity, and “you’ll see that his journey is continuing, and our creator is not through with him yet.”

Johnson countered by urging the jury to “over the next few weeks, take a hard look at him. Who is he? Who he is is written on his face, and I’m not saying that figuratively. Look in his face, look at his eyes, you can see who he is.”

That last was a reference to Maugaotega’s facial tattoos. One on his right temple says “Fuck the Law,” Johnson told the jury, while another on his left temple says “USO.”

Johnson added: “When he tells you who he is, listen.”

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