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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning: New Movie Prompts Questions (And Answers) About Crime Scene Clean-Up

Today marks the limited release of Christine Jeffs' (Sylvia) well-reviewed film, Sunshine Cleaning. Rotten Tomatoes describes the plot as follows:

Once the high school cheerleading captain who dated the quarterback, Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) now finds herself a thirty something single mother working as a maid. Her sister Norah, (Emily Blunt), is still living at home with their dad Joe (Alan Arkin), a salesman with a lifelong history of ill-fated get rich quick schemes.

Desperate to get her son into a better school, Rose persuades Norah to go into the crime scene clean-up business with her to make some quick cash. In no time, the girls are up to their elbows in murders, suicides and other…specialized situations. As they climb the ranks in a very dirty job, the sisters find a true respect for one another and the closeness they have always craved finally blossoms. By building their own improbable business, Rose and Norah open the door to the joys and challenges of being there for one another--no matter what--while creating a brighter future for the entire Lorkowski family.

Why, you might ask, would such a crime scene clean-up business be needed? Well, the answer to that question and many more can be found at "How Crime-scene Clean-up Works." And that answer is that:

The police, the fire department and the crime-scene investigators who arrive at a crime scene perform crucial tasks in the aftermath of a violent death. But they don't, as a general rule, clean up.

Here are a couple more fun facts:

-These companies charge anywhere from $100 to $600 an hour depending on the "degree of trauma" and the a mount of hazardous or biohazardous material the cleaners have to handle and dispose of. Cleaning up a homicide in a single room with a lot of blood can run from $1,000 to $3,000.

-This service is often covered under auto, homeowner's or business insurance, and many crime-scene clean-up companies will handle the insurance paperwork for their clients. In the case of homicide, the company usually sends the bill to the federal Crime Victim Reparations agency, which pays for the clean-up (or they send it to a relevant state counterpart, such as Texas' Crime Victims' Compensation Fund, which allows for the awarding of benefits for, inter alia, "crime scence clean-up").

-Crime scene clean-up is called CTS Decon -- crime and trauma scene decontamination. There are no national regulations for the CTS Decon industry, but there are organizations that promote standards as well as certain government regulations that cleaners have to follow, including the OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens Standards, which are guidelines for handling biohazardous material and the proper use of personal protection equipment, and individual state guidelines for crime-scene clean-up.

-CTS Decon is a quickly growing field (what Martin Blank might call a "growth industry")

-Many crime scene cleaners come from medical fields that prepare them for the gore -- they may have been EMTs or emergency room nurses. A construction background is helpful, too, because some clean-ups (especially meth labs) require walls and built-in structures to be removed.

-The most common clean-up scenes include: Violent death (homicide/suicide/accidental), Decomp (a decomposing body), and Methamphetamine labs.

-Crime scene cleaners burn out pretty quickly, and both employers and employees need to be on the lookout for signs of Critical Incident Stress Syndrome (CISS) and Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD).

According to Jeffs, the movie contains a realistic portrayal of a crime scene clean-up business.  When she was interviewed while the movie was premiering at Sundance, the following exchange took place:

Now, the cleaning business itself is the catalyst, the backdrop of the story, but it’s not the most important thing. When you were preparing to do the movie, did you really want to focus on getting that accurate?

It was absolutely important to get it accurate. We met with a real crime scene cleaner, a guy named Enrique who works in Albuquerque. Our art department did extensive research, and he was a resource to us all the way through the film. It’s very important that it.

Yeah, it didn’t seem right to throw a bloody mattress in the garbage.

Yeah, but it was interesting finding out there were rules about that kind of stuff. As the film goes on they start to grow. In the supermarket she says, “Oh, it’s just like cleaning houses, but with a bit of blood there.” And that’s how they get started, completely naive.

After reading about the movie, I expected to find some case law in which crime scene cleaners had to testify at trials in which there were questions regarding the crime scene and/or the destruction of evidence, but I surpisingly found only one.  In State v. Shumway, 63 P.3d 94 (Utah 2002), the Supreme Court of Utah, inter alia, reversed a defendant's conviction for tampering with evidence based upon his alleged concealment or destruction of a second murder weapon.  In reversing, the court noted that:

Other reasonable explanations exist why the instrument was not found. It could have fallen behind or underneath pieces of furniture in the living room where officers missed it in their search. It could have been found and discarded by the crime scene cleaners. Officers did not contact the crime scene cleaners after the clean-up to inquire whether they had found any such instrument.

I wonder whether the increase in crime scene cleaners will lead to an increasing number of trials in which there cleaners are involved and/or whether there will be any national regulations enacted to govern the industry.  What I do know is that Sunshine Cleaning is a must see based upon its glowing reviews and the presence of Adams, one of the best actresses working today.

-CM

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