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Obit: Holly Maguigan, Expert in Battered Women’s Self-Defense

Holly Maguigan, a law professor and criminal-defense lawyer who revolutionized the legal tools available to women who defend themselves against abusive partners, died on Nov. 15 in Manhattan. She was 78.


When Maguigan started practicing law, in the early 1970s, The New York Times reported, women with physically abusive partners had almost no recourse in the criminal justice system. The police rarely investigated their claims but were quick to arrest them if they fought back. More frequently than they do today, juries and the public tended to blame the victim, asking why she didn’t simply leave the relationship or flee an attack. Those attitudes began to change in the late 1970s and early ’80s, through portrayals of women who'd suffered violence, most notably the 1980 book “The Burning Bed” and the 1984 made-for-TV movie based on it, about a wife who kills her abusive husband. Still, the law struggled to keep up. Defense lawyers were ill-prepared and often afraid to take on such clients. Judges often refused to hear evidence of previous abuse. And case law around self-defense assumed equally matched parties, so that a small woman who shot her much larger husband while he was beating her could be convicted of using excessive force. That’s where Maguigan, then a professor at New York University, stepped in, taking on cases herself and connecting lawyers with psychologists and other experts. Among her most significant contributions was a lengthy 1991 article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, in which she provided data to show that a vast majority of women who use force to defend themselves against abusers do so during attacks or under imminent threat — not, as had long been assumed, during lulls in violent behavior.


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