Wednesday, April 21, 2021

First Black Woman on NY’s Highest Court Found Dead in Hudson River

Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam
Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam

*Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was not only the first African-American woman to serve on New York state’s highest court, but also the first female Muslim judge to serve on any court in the United States.

Tragically, the 65-year-old trailblazer was found dead on Wednesday (April 12), floating in the Hudson River. Law enforcement sources say her death is not considered suspicious, and that the investigation points to a possible suicide.

Two police sources told CNN that her brother committed suicide three years ago around this time of year, and she had also been stressed recently at work.

“Obviously, we’re still waiting for the full investigation, but to the extent that the challenges and the stresses in her life contributed to this, it’s a reminder that even the most accomplished people still deal with extraordinary challenges inward, and we don’t get to see that,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters Thursday.
“It is humbling. It’s a sad day. Someone who got so far and was lost so soon.”

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. Detectives did not find a suicide note.

Sheila Abdus Salaam
Sheila Abdus Salaam

Abdus-Salaam was last heard from about 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the sources. Her 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, a black hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants and sneakers.

The medical examiner will determine the cause of death, police said.

Born in Washington D.C. to working-class parents, Abdus-Salaam grew up with six siblings and attended the D.C.’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.

Gillian Lester, dean of Columbia Law School, said Abdus-Salaam spoke at the school’s “Empowering Women of Color” conference a few weeks ago. On Tuesday, the judge was to be the featured speaker at the annual alumni of color gathering, Lester wrote on the law school website. The event will be postponed “in light of this terrible loss.”

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