Two Hawaii inmates charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of a fellow Hawaii inmate at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona could face the death penalty if convicted.
The two are the first to face capital punishment for a crime committed in a private prison on the mainland since Hawaii started housing inmates out of state in 1995.
Because Hawaii has no death penalty, some legal advocates say the case could be unprecedented in the nation. Some also argue the situation raises new questions about the practice of sending inmates out of state to serve their sentences.
State Department of Public Safety officials say they are monitoring the case, but it doesn’t appear they plan to step in to urge Arizona to take the death penalty off the table.
"When you commit a crime in a different state, it’s a crime that is addressed with that state," said DPS Director Clayton Frank. "We abide by the laws of that respective state."
The two inmates — Miti Maugaotega Jr., 24, and Micah Kanahele, 29 — were indicted on first-degree murder and gang-related charges May 20 in the killing of Bronson Nunuha, 26, who was found in his cell at Saguaro on Feb. 18 with multiple stab wounds.
Maugaotega was serving a life sentence for first-degree attempted murder in the June 2003 shooting of Punchbowl resident Eric Kawamoto. Kanahele was serving two 20-year sentences for the October 2003 shooting deaths of Greg Morishima at his Aiea home and Guylan Nuuhiwa in a Pearl City parking lot a week later.
Nunuha was behind bars for three counts of second-degree burglary.
News that Maugaotega and Kanahele could face the death penalty comes as the state is investigating a second killing of a Hawaii inmate at Saguaro.
Clifford Medina, 23, was killed June 8 at Saguaro, and his cellmate, also a Hawaii inmate, is in custody in connection with the case.
Yesterday, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the acting governor while Gov. Linda Lingle is traveling in Asia, said the killings highlight the need to take a closer look at security at Saguaro and could prompt the state to move inmates from the facility.
But he said he would have to do more research before weighing in on whether the state should voice opposition on the two inmates facing the death penalty.
Some 1,871 male Hawaii inmates are at Saguaro, a 1,897-bed prison in Eloy, Ariz., owned by Corrections Corp. of America. About 50 more are at a separate CCA prison in Arizona.
The state spends about $61 million a year to house male inmates on the mainland because there is not enough room for them at Hawaii prisons. Last year, allegations by female Hawaii inmates of widespread sexual abuse by guards and employees at a CCA facility in Kentucky prompted the state to pull all 168 of its female inmates from the prison and bring them back to the islands to serve their time.
A spokesman with the Pinal County Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the Nunuha case, said the death penalty is within sentencing guidelines in a first-degree murder case.
He declined further comment because the case is ongoing.
Fifteen states, including Hawaii, do not have the death penalty.
state Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said the Nunuha case could prompt more discussion on the implications of shipping Hawaii inmates out of state.
Espero added he wants to learn more about the killing before trying to determine whether the state should stand in the way of a death penalty sentencing.
"Quite frankly, it was a cold-blooded murder," he said. "I’m sure you will find people in Hawaii that say they deserve (to face) the death penalty."
But, he added, "these cases really do show the need to come up with a plan to bring home our prisoners one day."
Opponents of the death penalty say the case raises legal questions. In a statement, ACLU Hawaii said it hopes Arizona will "respect Hawaii’s history and tradition of rejecting capital punishment in their treatment of Hawaii’s inmates."
ACLU also said Nunuha’s killing is "just one of a morbid series of events showing the need for independent oversight" of CCA’s contract with Hawaii. The group urged the governor to sign a bill into law that calls for an audit of the state’s contract with CCA.