Cyanide poisoning is a suicide method that can either kill quickly or with horrific symptoms, depending on how the substance is administered. Wall Street trader Michael Marin famously killed himself in the courtroom by this method after the jury found him guilty of burning down his Phoenix mansion, an offense that carried a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. He apparently took a capsule and then washed it down with a sports drink before falling to the floor a few minutes later in convulsions.}} Fierro v. Gomez, 865 F. Supp. 1387, 1396 (N.D. Cal. 1994), describes a worst-case scenario of the effects of inhaling cyanide (citations omitted):
|“||This process suffocates the body's cells. Deprived of oxygen, the cells are unable to produce the energy they need to stay alive. They stop functioning and eventually die, leading ultimately to the unconsciousness and death of the organism. The gas experienced by the inmate as "intense suffocation" and "air hunger". During an execution by lethal gas, an inmate may lose and subsequently regain consciousness several times, drifting in and out of conscious experience of the suffocating effects of cyanide gas.
In addition, since cyanide cuts off the normal ability of a cell to utilize oxygen, the cell is forced to use an inefficient backup system in an attempt to maintain critical levels of energy. A by-product of this backup system is lactic acid, which builds up in the cell, creating a painful condition known as acidosis. Plaintiffs' experts testified that this pain is similar to the pain accompanying intense physical activity or a heart attack.
Plaintiffs' experts also maintained that cyanide inhalation can lead to tetany, a painful sustained muscular contraction or spasm. Tetany may be manifested by opisthotonos behavior, muscular contractions so severe that the body is "arched backwards like a bridge," with contractions of sufficient force to "compress and fracture the vertebrae." Other possible manifestations of tetany include 1) carpal pedal spasm, in which the muscles of the hands and feet contract so severely that they bend and twist in an unnatural and painful manner, and 2) "sardonic smile," in which the lip muscles are pulled tightly away from the teeth. To a conscious person, tetany is extremely painful.
Finally, plaintiffs' experts testified that cyanide-induced oxygen debt causes the body to release very large amounts of adrenaline. Although an inmate on the verge of being executed may generate some adrenaline as a result of fear, this effect is compounded by the lethal gas itself. This adrenaline discharge is painful, especially in association with the intense muscle activity and acidosis caused by cyanide poisoning.