A jury deadlocked earlier this year when asked to decide if Miti Maugaotega Jr. should be executed.

A Hawaii prison gang member who murdered another inmate in an Arizona prison cell in 2010 will once again face the possibility of the death penalty.

An Arizona jury convicted Miti Maugaotega Jr. of first-degree murder last year for attacking and repeatedly stabbing fellow prisoner Bronson Nunuha on Feb. 18, 2010, as Nunuha lay on his bunk in a cell in the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.

But that same jury deadlocked earlier this year over whether to sentence Maugaotega to death after hearing descriptions of the abuse Maugaotega endured as a child and his troubled teenage years steeped in drugs and violence in gang territory in Waipahu.

Arizona prosecutors plan to ask a new jury to impose the death penalty on Maugaotega, according to Michael Pelton, spokesman for the Pinal County Attorney’s Office.

Miti Maugaotega Jr. in the Pinal County courtroom where he was convicted of first-degree murder last year. County prosecutors will try to persuade a new jury to sentence him to death. (Paul Ingram/Civil Beat/2023)

Pelton said prosecutors will not comment further on their decision to once again seek the death penalty for Maugaotega because the case is ongoing. Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm also declined comment on the case.

Why Hawaii Inmates Can Face The Death Penalty

It is extremely rare for a prisoner from Hawaii to face the death penalty, which was abolished here in 1957 before statehood.

Hawaii holds hundreds of prisoners at the privately run Saguaro prison because there is not enough room for them in correctional facilities in the islands.

When inmates from Hawaii commit crimes while being held in Arizona, they are subject to Arizona law. But Arizona has never sentenced a Hawaii inmate to death for crimes committed while in custody there.

Maugaotega’s first-degree murder conviction in Arizona carries a penalty of either life in prison or death, but only a jury can impose the death penalty.

If that doesn’t happen, Arizona judges have the option of sentencing offenders convicted of first-degree murder to life in prison without possibility of parole or allowing them to become eligible for parole after serving 25 years.

The Pinal Couny prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty for a second time for Maugaotega comes as Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs has launched an independent review of that state’s execution process.

Arizona has 112 inmates on death row, but it suspended executions for nearly eight years after one was botched in 2014. Three prisoners were put to death in Arizona last year after executions resumed, but the process was paused again earlier this year pending the outcome of the independent review of the execution protocols.

‘Especially Heinous And Depraved’

Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson argued to the first jury in Maugaotega’s case that Nunuha, who was a member of a prison gang called West Side, had violated “Miti’s law” and was marked by Maugaotega for a death that was “especially heinous and depraved.”

Maugaotega, a member of a prison gang called USO Family, told a police detective he beat and stabbed Nunuha repeatedly, then pushed him off the bunk and kicked him unconscious.

Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson during arguments in a Florence, Arizona, courtroom in January. Johnson alleged Maugaotega has shown no remorse for the murder of Bronson Nunuha in 2010. (Paul Ingram/Civil Beat/2023)

Nunuha suffered some 150 stab wounds to his face, neck and back during the attack by Maugaotega and another inmate. Maugaotega admitted to a police investigator he also carved the letters “USO” into Nunuha’s chest.

During arguments in the case in January, Johnson displayed pictures of Nunuha’s bloody sheets and bunk to the jury and described in explicit detail Maugaotega’s rape of a 57-year-old woman in a Honolulu apartment during a home-invasion robbery in 2003.

He also related 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.

Maugaotega was 17 when he was convicted in those Hawaii cases. He is now 37, and according to the state Department of Public Safety will not be eligible for parole for his Hawaii crimes until 2207.

Maugaotega was also described as an enforcer for the USO Family gang, which federal officials have described as the dominant gang in the Hawaii correctional system.

Troubled Childhood

But Maugaotega’s defense lawyer Jack Earley dismissed allegations that Nunuha’s killing was triggered by a gang dispute. “Everybody in that prison knew that it was personal” because Nunuha had allegedly threatened Maugaotega’s family, Earley said.

Earley described Maugaotega’s rugged childhood and youth in American Samoa and Hawaii for the jury, which included an accident when Maugaotega was 4 and suffered third-degree burns over much of his body.

And Earley portrayed Maugaotega in January as a talented artist who developed his artisitic gifts in prison. Earley did not respond to a request for comment on the Pinal County Attorney’s decision to pursue the death penalty for Maugaotega for a second time.

Hawaii Rep. Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden said the handling of Maugaotega’s case falls into a “legal gray area” because a Hawaii inmate is being subjected to the death penalty, which Hawaii does not have.

Ganaden is a lawyer and a member of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, and formerly worked on Maugaotega’s defense team assisting with his case from Hawaii. Pinal County paid for his services, Ganaden said.

“I feel bad for the Arizona taxpayer who’s footing the bill for a prosecution that’s going into the millions,” he said. “It’s almost like this is a vendetta by their state prosecutor rather, than having what people often say, which is a victim-based approach. A victim-based approach would be supporting (Nunuha’s) family in their ongoing trauma.”

“I’m grateful to our forebearers in the Legislature and in the state of Hawaii for not allowing for the death penalty,” Ganaden said. “I find it appalling for a variety of reasons, including my own religion and morality.”

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