Sheila Abdus-Salaam, nation’s first female Muslim judge, found dead in Hudson River

Posted at 8:22 AM, Apr 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-13 14:09:24-04

Sheila Abdus-Salaam

The death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American woman to serve on New York state’s highest court, is not considered suspicious, and the investigation points to a possible suicide, two law enforcement sources told CNN on Thursday.

The body of Abdus-Salaam, a 65-year-old judge described as a trailblazer and “humble pioneer,” was found Wednesday afternoon in the Hudson River.

Robert Boyce, chief of detectives for the New York police, told reporters that there were no apparent injuries to Abdus-Salaam’s body and that her death does not appear to be criminal in nature.

The judge was last heard from about 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the sources. Abdus-Salaam’s husband told police his wife’s secretary received a call from the judge saying she wouldn’t be into work that day.

Police responded to a 911 call about a person floating in the Hudson around 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. They found an unconscious and unresponsive woman, who was later pronounced dead and identified as Abdus-Salaam. She was fully clothed in running attire, black hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants and sneakers.

The investigation indicates that Abdus-Salaam had been stressed recently at work and that her brother had committed suicide three years ago around this same time of year, according to law enforcement sources. Detectives did not find a suicide note.

The medical examiner will determine the cause of death, according the New York Police Department.

Abdus-Salaam had been an associate justice on the New York Court of Appeals since 2013.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed her to the court, hailed her as a “trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”

She had been reported missing by her husband Tuesday, reported CNN affiliate WCBS-TV in New York.

‘Humble pioneer’

Tributes for Abdus-Salaam poured in from New York officials.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted: “She was a humble pioneer. My thoughts are with her family.”

Seymour W. James Jr., attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement that the judge’s passing had left many heartbroken.

“She leaves a lasting impact on New York — from her time as a legal services attorney fighting on behalf of low-income families, to her tenure as the first African-American woman to preside on the state’s highest court.”

Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tweeted that he was devastated by the news.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. called her “a true pioneer and leader in the justice system” who “lived up to her reputation of being smart, principled, and rigorously fair.”

“Justice Abdus-Salaam leaves a void not only on the state’s highest bench, but in the criminal justice system as a whole,” he said in a statement.

Longtime judge

Born in Washington to working-class parents, Abdus-Salaam grew up with six siblings and attended the district’s public schools.

She became interested in pursuing law after civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman visited her high school.

Abdus-Salaam went to Barnard College for her bachelor’s degree and later received her law degree from Columbia University.

She began her legal career at the East Brooklyn Legal Services and later became an assistant attorney general in the New York State Department of Law for its civil rights and real estate financing bureaus.

She began her judicial career in 1991 and was appointed in 2009 by then-Gov. David Paterson to the Appellate Division, First Department.

“During her time on the bench, Justice Abdus-Salaam earned the respect of all who appeared before her as a thoughtful, thorough, and fair jurist,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.