Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer finally abandoned the effort to have Miti Maugaotega Jr. sentenced to death for the killing of another prisoner in Arizona.

A prisoner from Hawaii was given a life sentence without possibility of parole in Arizona Tuesday after prosecutors there finally abandoned a years-long effort to have him sentenced to death for a 2010 prison murder.

Miti Maugaotega Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder last year in the slaying of Bronson Nunuha, 26, who was attacked in his cell at Saguaro Correctional Center and stabbed some 150 times.

But an Arizona jury deadlocked earlier this year in the penalty phase of the trial, with several jurors refusing to sentence Maugaotega to death for the slaying.

Prosecutors initially signaled they would ask a new jury to impose a death sentence on Maugaotega, but withdrew their “notice of intent to seek death” on Tuesday during a hearing before Pinal County Superior Court Judge Robert Olson.

Olson then sentenced Maugaotega, 37, to spend his “natural life” in prison in Arizona for Nunuha’s murder, a sentence that is to begin when Maugaotega finishes serving his time for the crimes he committed in Hawaii.

Miti Maugaotega Jr., right, is shown here with his attorneys during the penalty phase of his trial in Florence, Arizona in January. He has been sentenced to spend his “natural life” in prison there after he completes his sentences for his crimes in Hawaii. (Paul Ingram/Civil Beat/2023)

But that isn’t likely to happen. At 17, Maugaotega was convicted of an array of felonies in Hawaii, including sexual assault, a home-invasion robbery and attempted murder, and Hawaii prison officials say he will not be eligible for parole for his Hawaii offenses until 2207.

Olson also sentenced Maugaotega Tuesday to yet another 15-year prison term for two counts of aggravated assault for the stabbings of two prison guards in an Arizona prison in 2011, a sentence he is somehow supposed to serve after he completes his life sentence in Arizona.

Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer said in an interview he finally decided not to seek the death penalty partly because of complications specific to Maugaotega’s case and partly because pursuing a death sentence likely would have cost Pinal County taxpayers $1 million or more.

“They tell us we’re not really supposed to consider that, but as an elected official, a steward of the taxpayer dollars, as somebody who is personally responsible to account to the taxpayers for every dollar that I spend, I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t play at least a role,” Volkmer said of the cost.

“It wasn’t the predominant role, it wasn’t the most important, but it was a factor,” he said.

Volkmer said the case involved “the single most brutal, disgusting murder I’ve ever seen,” and said he saw “pure evil” in Maugaotega’s eyes during his smiling, videotaped confession to police.

Maugaotega, a member of a prison gang called USO Family, told a police detective he beat and stabbed Nunuha repeatedly during the attack on Feb. 18, 2010, dragged Nunuha off his bunk and kicked him unconscious.

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

But Volkmer said it is “exceedingly rare” for a jury to impose the death penalty in a case where one prison inmate has murdered another. “That’s not something that the jurors are really supposed to be considering, but the reality is, it is,” he said.

Pinal County has 15 private and publicly operated jails and prisons including the privately run Saguaro facility where Maugaotega and Nunuha were housed, and Volkmer described a pattern in such cases.

“No matter how many times they’ve killed, no matter how many times they’ve done it, it seems as if juries just are very hesitant to issue a death penalty. I think it’s just because of the violent nature of prisons, they think that maybe it’s more acceptable than it would be in society,” Volkmer said.

Hawaii now holds about 870 prison inmates in Arizona’s Saguaro Correctional Center. Hawaii has no death penalty but Arizona does, and Hawaii inmates who are serving their sentences there are subject to Arizona law. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

Jack Earley, Maugaotega’s lawyer, said it would probably have taken another three or four years to present the penalty phase of the trial all over again for a new jury.

Earley said another consideration for the Arizona authorities is that once Maugaotega is sentenced for the Arizona murder he will be placed back in the custody of Hawaii prison officials, and will likely never return to Arizona.

“His Hawaii sentence is well past his lifetime,” Earley said, which means returning him to Hawaii saves Arizona the cost of housing him. But if a death sentence had been imposed in Arizona, that would likely have trigged some 20 years of appeals there, he said.

Hawaii is currently holding about 870 prison inmates at the privately run Saguaro facility because there is no room for them in state correctional facilities, and those inmates are subject to Arizona law while they are there.

But Hawaii has no death penalty, and some critics argue Hawaii prisoners should not be subject to the death penalty in Arizona, either.

Earley said Maugaotega and other Hawaii inmates sent to Arizona “had no idea it was a death state,” and had no choice in the matter.

“I think it is a fairness issue, because these people are Hawaii citizens, they come from Hawaiian culture, and they’re moved to a completely different culture where things are totally different,” he said.

Volkmer rejected that argument.

“Quite frankly, if they don’t like the way we’re handling this, then they shouldn’t put people in the state of Arizona, because he was in the state of Arizona when he murdered somebody in the state of Arizona, and we are going to apply our laws, not some other laws,” Volkmer said.

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