Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Mayhem, in plain English, refers to the act of maliciously injuring a person in such a way that it permanently disfigures, debilitates, or disables them. This can include actions such as cutting off or disabling a limb, blinding someone, or inflicting any other kind of permanent and significant injury. Mayhem is not just a generic term for chaos or violence; it specifically deals with causing lasting bodily harm intentionally.

The Harm Mayhem Laws Seek to Prevent

Mayhem laws address a profound societal concern: the malicious and intentional act of causing permanent harm. When someone commits mayhem, they aren’t just causing momentary pain or injury; they’re altering the victim’s life permanently. Such acts go beyond mere physical harm. They can inflict significant psychological trauma, forcing victims to live with the aftermath of the attack, which may include lasting pain, disability, or disfigurement.

By outlawing mayhem, legislatures aim to protect individuals not only from the physical harm but also from the emotional and psychological trauma that accompanies such injuries. The laws are a testament to society’s recognition of personal bodily autonomy and the right to live without the fear of permanent disfigurement. Beyond the individual, these laws uphold social order by discouraging acts that can spark intense fear within communities.

Classification of Mayhem in Legal Codes

In most legal codes, mayhem is classified as a felony. A felony is a serious crime, often punishable by long-term imprisonment. This classification reflects the gravity of intentionally causing permanent bodily harm.

Categories of Criminal Offenses

Mayhem is primarily classified under crimes against persons. Unlike crimes against property, which involve harm or threats to one’s possessions, crimes against persons are offenses that directly harm or threaten harm to an individual. Given its nature, mayhem does not fall under other broad categories like sexual crimes or white-collar crimes.

A Historical Trace of Mayhem

The offense of mayhem has its roots in ancient legal codes. Under the Lex Talionis of the Hammurabi Code, the principle was “an eye for an eye,” which speaks to the retributive justice for causing permanent injuries.

However, for a deeper understanding, we turn to Sir William Blackstone, a renowned legal scholar. In his seminal work, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone writes about mayhem as an offense against the “king’s peace.” He highlights its malicious intent and the specific nature of the injury, which separates it from other violent crimes.

English common law defined mayhem strictly as the act of maliciously depriving a person of a part of their body that would render them less able to defend themselves or their sovereign. This definition emphasized the societal implications of such injuries, going beyond the individual victim’s harm.

Over time, the definition expanded in common law jurisdictions to cover a broader range of injuries, recognizing the broader personal and societal implications of malicious disfigurement or disabling.

Modern Penal Code Definition of Mayhem

The Model Penal Code’s Stance on Mayhem

While the Model Penal Code (MPC) does not directly use the term “mayhem,” it has provisions under aggravated assault and related offenses that capture the essence of what many jurisdictions term as mayhem. According to the MPC, causing serious bodily injury to another purposely, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, is an act tantamount to mayhem.

MPC § 211.1(2)(a) defines this as “Aggravated Assault,” stating:

A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he… attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.

Serious Bodily Injury Defined

The term “serious bodily injury” is crucial to the definition. As per MPC § 210.0(3):

Serious Bodily Injury means bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.

Defenses to Mayhem under the Model Penal Code

The MPC lists several defenses to offenses like mayhem. One of the most notable is the claim of self-defense or the defense of others. Under MPC § 3.04, a person is justified in using force upon another person if they believe such force is immediately necessary to protect themselves against the unlawful force by the other individual. However, the use of deadly force, which can result in serious bodily injuries akin to mayhem, is only justifiable under more stringent conditions, such as when the person believes it’s necessary to protect against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or sexual assault.

Another defense, though less commonly invoked, is the defense of consent. If the victim provided valid consent to the act resulting in injury, it might mitigate the charges or serve as a defense. However, it’s important to note that most jurisdictions, following the MPC’s sentiment, hold that one cannot consent to serious bodily injury or death.

Hypothetical: Mayhem under Arkansas Law

In the heart of Rock Creek, Arkansas, tales of Bubba Jones’s indiscretions had become almost legendary. Yet, no one felt the gravity of his betrayals more keenly than Clara, his loving wife of fifteen years.

One sun-drenched morning, after uncovering irrefutable evidence of Bubba’s most recent affair, a tempest of anger and heartache raged within Clara. As the kitchen bathed in the golden glow of dawn, she prepared breakfast, her mind consumed by a dark plan.

As the pot of grits reached a boiling crescendo, Bubba, oblivious to his wife’s turmoil, entered the kitchen, ready for the day’s first meal. In a moment of blinding rage, Clara flung the scalding contents of the pot straight at Bubba.

The immediate result was chilling. Bubba’s once-familiar face now bore the scars of that ill-fated morning, permanently altered.

The State of Arkansas was quick to act. Invoking the specific language of Ark. Code Ann. § 5-13-201, it states: “A person commits battery in the first degree if… with the purpose of causing serious physical injury to another person, he or she causes serious physical injury to any person by means of a deadly weapon or by any other means under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

The law defines “serious physical injury” as “physical injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health, or loss or protracted impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.”

Given that Bubba’s injuries led to “protracted disfigurement,” explicitly covered under the statute’s definition of serious physical injury, Clara’s act—undertaken in a manner showing “extreme indifference to the value of human life”—undoubtedly constituted a First-Degree Battery charge.

In this tragic tale, the precise language of Arkansas’s laws reminds readers that while emotions can be turbulent, they never justify actions that cause irreversible harm.

Elements of the Crime of Mayhem

  1. Mens Rea (Mindset/Intent): The perpetrator must act “purposely,” “knowingly,” or “recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”
  2. Actus Reus (The Act): Causing or attempting to cause serious bodily injury.
  3. Concurrence: The mindset (Mens Rea) and the act (Actus Reus) must occur simultaneously.
  4. Causation: The defendant’s actions directly led to the serious bodily injury.
  5. Harm: The victim suffered a serious bodily injury.
  6. Attendant Circumstances: The injury was caused under circumstances showing extreme indifference to human life.


  • Ark. Code Ann. § 5-13-201
  • Blackstone, W. (1765-1769). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Clarendon Press.
  • Hammurabi. (c. 1754 BCE). Code of Hammurabi.
  • Model Penal Code (MPC). (1985). American Law Institute.
  • Schmalleger, F. (2019). Criminal Law Today (6th ed.). Pearson.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  10/10/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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