WEST HARLEM— The body of trailblazing New York State appeals court judge who was the first African-American woman to sit on the state’s highest court was found in the Hudson River Wednesday afternoon in what was likely a suicide, police and reports said.
Witnesses discovered the body of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, 65, near West 132nd Street and the Henry Hudson Parkway around 1:45 p.m. and contacted police, the NYPD said.
The NYPD Harbor Unit pulled her body from the river and took it to West 125 Street and Marginal Street, where medics responded and pronounced her dead at the scene, police said.
Her husband filed a missing persons report Tuesday, an NYPD spokeswoman said. He also identified the body later that day at the 26th Precinct, said Robert Boyce, the NYPD's chief of detectives.
“There's no apparent trauma to her body. We don't believe she was in the water a long time,” he said, adding that an autopsy is underway.
Boyce said there appears to be no foul play and the department is reconstructing the timeline of events to trace her movements.
Multiple outlets, citing law enforcement sources, reported that police are treating her death as a suicide. Her brother committed suicide about three years ago, and her mother died last year, the New York Times reported.
“We're speaking to everybody she was involved with in her lifetime. She spent the weekend with her husband in Jersey,” Boyce noted.
The judge was last seen Monday night around 7 p.m. and spoke with her assistant Tuesday morning, Boyce noted.
She was discovered fully clothed in the river and detectives found a MetroCard on her, which was last used at a subway station on 42nd Street, giving investigators “an immediate lead,” Boyce explained.
He said her death came as "a surprise to everyone" and that the department will “try to figure this thing out as quickly as we can."
Abdus-Salaam, a longtime Harlem resident who was born in working-class Washington, D.C., was appointed to the State Court of Appeals by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013. She became the first African-American woman to serve on the court,
She got her start as a lawyer at Brooklyn Legal Services in East Brooklyn, according to her online biography.
Abdus-Salaam eventually worked her way up to to the state’s Law Department, the general counsel for the city’s Office of Labor Services, before being elected to the state’s Supreme Court.
“Rising from working-class roots to serve for decades on the bench of the New York State Supreme Court, Justice Abdus-Salaam has a deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers, as well as the complex legal issues that come before the state’s highest court,” Cuomo said at the time of her nomination, according to the New York Times.
She also attended law school at Columbia University with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in the 1970s.
Holder, at her 2013 swearing-in ceremony, called her clever, intelligent and also joked that “Sheila could boogie,” according to the Albany Times-Union.
"Who knew that we would both attain such high positions, and that you would be the first black United States attorney general, and I would be the first black woman on the New York Court of Appeals?" she later told Holder at the swearing in, according to the paper.
Soon after news of her death broke, the governor released a statement calling her “a trailblazing jurist and a force for good.
“On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies,” Cuomo said.
Lawmakers and those in the legal world also offered their condolences.
“A trailblazer, fighter for justice and a mensch. Incomprehensible. We will miss her,” tweeted Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Carl Heastie, the speaker of the state Assembly, in a statement called her “dedicated public servant” and said “her passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said she was a “a true pioneer and leader in the justice system.”
“She 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.”
Abdus-Salaam being the court’s first African-American woman was not lost on her. In a video interview with Project Brownstone discussing the importance of African-American history, she expressed pride in her rise.
“This great-granddaughter of slaves is the first African-American judge on the highest court of the state of New York,” she said.
"All the way from Arrington, Virginia, where my family was the property of someone else, to my sitting on the highest court in the state of New York is amazing and huge and it tells you — and me — what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story referred to Abdus-Salaam as the first female Muslim judge in the country. According to a spokesman for the state Court of Appeals, she was not Muslim. "She didn't care if people thought she was Muslim, but would have liked to see the historical record kept straight," spokesman Gary Spencer said. Further details were not available.