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Religious Manipulation and Abuse Leads to Forced Labor of Undocumented Immigrants
United States v. Murra, 879 F.3d 669 (5th Cir. 2018)


Olga Sandra Murra met Ingrid Guerrero and her three young sisters while living in Mexico in 1985. The Guerrero sisters were struggling to get by. They had left their parent’s house due to an unstable home life and were looking for stability and support. After meeting Murra, they began to attend religious services in Murra’s home. They became connected to Murra and she eventually convinced them to move into her house. This is when the physical and psychological abuse began.

Murra’s scheme of isolation and abuse began in her home in Mexico and continued for over two decades. Murra used religious pressure as well as physical abuse to prevent the women from leaving. She referred to herself as “the voice of God.” She forced the women into difficult working conditions at a jean factory, where Murra retained total control over their wages.

If Ingrid or her sisters disagreed with Murra, she would beat them with a wooden paddle. She also used religious intimidation, telling the young women that they were “obscene” or “rebellious” and that they needed to repent of their “sins.” Murra would force Ingrid to sit in baths of ice water to make her “pure.”

During this time, Murra also began to use religious “prophecy” to manipulate her half-sister, Vania. Vania was studying in medical school when Murra began to communicate “prophecies” to her. Murra convinced Vania to break up with her boyfriend. She told her that God did not consent to the relationship and that the man could beat or kill her. Murra’s religious manipulation led Vania to move into Murra’s home along with the Guerreros.

The Exploitation Continued Across the Border

In 1997, Murra moved her family to El Paso, Texas. Soon after, she facilitated the unlawful passage of Vania and the Guerreros to the United States. Once in Texas, Murra retained complete control over all of their personal identification and immigration documents.

At this point, Murra began using the women’s status as undocumented immigrants to force them to work in her house cleaning business. Murra collected all profits and the women were not paid any wages for their work. The Guerreros and Vania continued to be subjected to abusive living conditions. Ingrid was forced to work as a cashier at McDonald’s and Walmart, along with the cleaning business, and pass on all paychecks to Murra. The women often slept in the garage or backyard and were restricted to small amounts of bread and water.

The threats of physical abuse and psychological manipulation prevented Vania and Ingrid from seeking help or escaping. Additionally, Murra threatened that she would turn them into immigration authorities if they misbehaved. She told them harrowing tales of illegal immigrants being buried alive by immigration enforcement agents. Ultimately, after seven years of forced labor under Murra in the United States, Vania decided that enough was enough. She chose any unknown future, even immigration detention or deportation, over “dying in this hell.”

Ingrid followed five years later, finally leaving Murra in 2011. Both initially ended up in the homes of former housekeeping clients. They later turned to Mosaic Family Services, Inc., a non-profit legal and counseling services organization.

District Court Decision and Appeal

In April 2016, Olga Sandra Murra, also known as Olga Sandra Capon-Meneses, was indicted on two counts of forced labor under 18 U.S.C. §1589(a). In June 2016, an additional two counts of harboring illegal aliens were added to the indictment against Murra.

Following a weeklong jury trial, Murra was convicted of all four counts. The District Court sentenced her to 72 months imprisonment and ordered her to pay a total of $795,000 in restitution to Vania and Ingrid.

Murra appealed the District Court’s verdict on four grounds: (1) the court erred in admitting testimony of an expert witness, (2) the prosecutor improperly commented on her decision not to testify in her defense, (3) the court erred in ruling that documents provided by Mosaic Family Services, Inc. were protected by psycho-therapist or attorney-client privilege, and (4) the court erred by imposing a “vulnerable victim” enhancement to Murra’s sentence.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Expert Witness Testimony

First, relying on Federal Rule of Evidence 702, Murra challenged the testimony of the government’s expert witness, Dr. Wolf, about “trauma bonding.” Rule 702 allows the use of expert testimony to “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue,” but prevents an expert witness from usurping the jury’s function to weigh evidence and make credibility determinations. Here, Dr. Wolf testified generally about trauma bonds, but did not apply any of the principles or methods of trauma bonding to the facts of Murra’s case.

The District Court found that Dr. Wolf’s testimony was admissible because the Court had previously admitted expert testimony on “return-to-the-abuser behavior.” The Fifth Circuit found that the District Court’s decision was also in line with Rule 702 because Dr. Wolf was “qualified, her testimony on trauma bonds addressed a subject matter on which the jury could be assisted, her testimony was reliable, and her testimony was relevant to the facts the Government alleged.” The Fifth Circuit further noted that Dr. Wolf did not apply her testimony to the facts of the case, therefore not “usurping the jury’s function to weigh evidence and make credibility determinations.”

The Fifth Circuit’s decision is also in line with other Circuit’s determinations surrounding admission of expert testimony in cases of human trafficking. The Eighth Circuit, in United States v. Farrell,1 held that even when the expert witness went too far by testifying to the strength of the Government’s case, the error did not affect the substantial rights of the defendants and was therefore admissible.

Vulnerable Victim Enhancement

Murra also appealed the District Court’s judgment in part on a misapplication of the “vulnerable victim” sentencing enhancement.2 The Court applied the enhancement due to the victims’ status as undocumented immigrants. Application of this enhancement is subject to a determination of whether the victim is vulnerable due solely to their status as a victim of this particular crime, or if there is an additional element of vulnerability. The Seventh Circuit, in United States v. Calimlim,3 determined that the unique vulnerability of an undocumented immigrant is not already accounted for in the guidelines of the base offence of forced labor. Therefore, the enhancement is proper and should be applied.4

In her appeal, Murra argued that Ingrid and Vania’s status as undocumented immigrants was already accounted for in the two counts of harboring an illegal immigrant for profit. The Fifth Circuit disagreed with her argument and affirmed the District Court in its appropriate application of the enhancement.

Psychotherapist-Client Privilege

Finally, Murra challenged the application of the psychotherapist-patient privilege to the victims’ communications with Mosaic Family Services, Inc. (Mosaic), a legal and counseling services organization focused on immigration related issues. After escaping Murra’s home, Ingrid and Vania both sought psychotherapy and legal counseling services from Mosaic.

The District Court held that communications between Ingrid and Vania and their counselors at Mosaic were protected under psychotherapist-patient and attorney-client privileges. On appeal, Murra argued that Ingrid and Vania waived their privilege because they knew that the information provided would be shared with authorities in order to prosecute the criminal activities described. The Fifth Circuit held that this is an incorrect assumption that an individual forfeits the privilege when the information shared in the therapy session amounts to allegations that a crime has been committed. The Fifth Circuit went on to state that simply because an individual shares facts from a psychotherapy session in trial, that does not mean all confidential communication is now waived and should be accessible at trial.

The Fifth Circuit further dismisses Murra’s arguments by stating that the victims had a “reasonable expectation of confidentiality” in their communications with their therapists. There was nothing to indicate that either Mosaic or the victims themselves revealed any portion of the confidential communications to any third party.

Mosaic Family Services met Ingrid and Vania during a vulnerable and dangerous time and did everything necessary to support them in their recovery and protect their rights as victims of forced labor trafficking.

  • 1 U.S. v. Farrell, 563 F. 3d (8th Cir. 2009).
  • 2 The “vulnerable victim” enhancement is set out in U.S.S.G. § 3A1.1(b)(1). It requires a two-level increase if the defendant “knew or should have known that a victim of the offense was a vulnerable victim.” The commentary accompanying this section defines a “vulnerable victim” as one “who is unusually vulnerable due to age, physical or mental condition, or who is otherwise particularly susceptible to the criminal conduct.” (U.S.S.G. § 3A1.1, appl. n. 2).
  • 3 The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held in United States v. Calimlim, 538 F.3d 706 (7th Cir. 2008), that the District Court erred in failing to apply the “vulnerable victim” enhancement in a case of forced labor of an undocumented immigrant.
  • 4 See also: United States v. Supawan Veerapol, 312 F.3d 1128 (9th Cir. 2002); United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 254 (2d Cir. 2010); United States v. Chang, 237 F. Appx. 985, 988–89 (5th Cir. 2007); United States v. Jimenez-Calderon, 183 F. Appx. 274, 279-80 (3d Cir. 206)

About the author

Nicole Banister

Nicole Banister

Nicole Banister is an attorney and criminal justice advocate in Washington, DC. She previously worked with the Ugandan Judiciary as the project manager on a pilot project focused on reducing pretrial detention and improving indigent criminal defense. Prior to the pilot project, she supported the Ugandan Judiciary in expanding the civil mediation program as the Pepperdine Nootbaar Fellow and court-accredited mediator in the Family Division of the High Court. She received a J.D. from Pepperdine University School of Law and a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from Taylor University.