mayhem | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Mayhem is a criminal offense involving the intentional or reckless infliction of serious bodily harm to another person.

To fully grasp what mayhem is, we need to go back in time. Under common law, a historic legal system in England, mayhem was seen as a particularly egregious crime. William Blackstone, a notable English jurist, described mayhem as an act that cruelly deprived a person of a body part, thereby diminishing their ability to defend themselves in the future.

Blackstone’s characterization of mayhem presents it as a crime that does more than just injure a person. It permanently alters a victim’s physical capabilities. This definition emphasizes the gravity of the crime, making it clear why it’s considered more serious than a simple assault.

Modern Interpretation: Model Penal Code’s Approach

Fast forward to today, the Model Penal Code (MPC), a modern guideline used by many U.S. jurisdictions, treats mayhem as a form of aggravated assault. Under the MPC, an individual commits aggravated assault by intentionally causing severe bodily harm, which aligns with the original definition of the offense.

According to the MPC, this kind of assault is an act that results in serious and lasting harm to the victim. This might include the loss of a limb, an eye, or an ear or damage that impairs a person’s speech, hearing, or other essential bodily functions. The critical aspect of this modern understanding of mayhem is the intention or reckless disregard for the harm caused.

Differentiating Mayhem: More Than Just an Assault

It is often viewed as a step beyond simple assault or battery. While assault might leave someone with temporary injuries, mayhem results in permanent damage or disfigurement. Therefore, the law generally considers mayhem as a more severe crime, often classified as a felony. Felonies are serious offenses that typically result in longer prison sentences.

Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, an individual might face charges of mayhem alongside other serious charges. These could include aggravated assault or even attempted murder. It all depends on the specific facts and severity of the crime.

The Impact of Mayhem: Long-Term Consequences

The primary distinction of mayhem from other forms of assault is the lasting, often life-changing impact on the victim. Such severe injuries can result in significant changes to a person’s life, both physically and emotionally. Hence, the law treats this crime with the severity it deserves.

In conclusion, mayhem is a grave crime rooted in common law and redefined in the modern era. It involves intentionally or recklessly causing significant bodily harm that results in permanent injury or disfigurement. As society continues to evolve, so does our understanding and treatment of such serious offenses.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/29/2023

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