Lethal Inorganic Salts Can Cyanide provide a reliable and peaceful death?
Those watching the cinematographic depiction of Sampedro’s death would have cause to believe that a death resulting from the ingestion of cyanide salts is peaceful. Unfortunately, not all reports of cyanide deaths support this view. Indeed, there is considerable variation in accounts. While reliability is not an issue, the question most raised relates to the method’s ‘peacefulness.’ Just how peaceful is it to die with cyanide?
Most accounts of death from cyanide poisoning come from witnesses to gas chamber executions where the (unwilling) prisoner inhaled HCN. One study undertaken at San Quentin prison showed that, on average, consciousness was lost within one to three minutes, with death occurring after nine minutes. These deaths were often peaceful with the prisoner falling quickly asleep.
On some occasions, however, a violent (and presumably painful) death was observed. This method of execution was largely abandoned in the US in 1994 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took a successful action against the California Department of Corrections. In their action, the ACLU argued successfully that the gas chamber violated the US Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment, because it inflicted needless pain and suffering.
Eyewitness accounts of seriously ill people drinking dissolved cyanide salt are also mixed. In his book Final Exit, Derek Humphry describes deaths that are quick and painless. But he also documents one unexplained account that refers to a death that was ‘miserable and violent, marked by frequent tetanic convulsions while awake’.