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'Someone Who Was at the Pinnacle': Friends Recall Pioneering Harlem Judge

By Dartunorro Clark | April 15, 2017 4:18pm | Updated on April 17, 2017 8:50am
 Witnesses discovered the body of Abdus-Salaam, 65, near West 132nd Street and Henry Hudson Parkway, police said.
Witnesses discovered the body of Abdus-Salaam, 65, near West 132nd Street and Henry Hudson Parkway, police said.
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Flickr/State Court of Appeals

HARLEM — Just a few weeks ago, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was on the phone with the president of the Association of Black Women Attorneys to discuss their annual April gala.

Abdus-Salaam had already bought her ticket, and she was eager to attend.

“Her mood was good, she was excited. She was looking forward to it,” said the president, Kaylin Whittingham, an attorney who had become good friends with the judge through the association and working in the legal profession.

“She sounded upbeat. It was a pleasant conversation.”

This was, by Whittingham's account, normal. Abdus-Salaam had been an active member of the organization for several years, and “she was always willing to give back,” she said.

The judge “attended the small and the large, and you could always count on her support,” Whittingham added.

Steve Younger, an attorney who had known the judge for the past 15 years, always made time to catch up with her over the phone or schedule lunch dates. He spoke to her just last week and said nothing sounded out of the ordinary.

They “had a very lovely conversation,” Younger recalled. “She was talking about what her plans were for the summer," including going away with her husband to Massachusetts.

“You didn’t think she had a care in the world,” he said.

But when Abdus-Salaam's body washed ashore Wednesday in the Hudson River near West 132nd Street, it came as a shock to many of those who knew her, particularly those who had become close friends and worked with her in the legal world.  

Multiple news organizations, citing law enforcement officials, reported that police are treating the death as a suicide. The New York Times reported that her brother killed himself about two years ago and her mother committed suicide in 2012.

On Thursday, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said it was too early to say what had happened.

“It’s completely out of character,” said Younger, who described the judge as a very private person. “It’s one of those things where you say, “Is there something I didn’t know about her?”

By all accounts, Abdus-Salaam was warm and caring. She was a fair and sharp jurist, a mentor and a pioneer, becoming the first African-American woman to sit on the state Court of Appeals when Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed her in 2013.

“Very caring. Always had a sparkle in her eye,” Younger said. “You couldn’t find anyone who would have a bad word to say about her.”

Younger remembered arguing a case before Abdus-Salaam when she was on the state Supreme Court. He said she was smart and careful with her decisions and “always took a narrow road” when making a decision.

Whittingham recalled her “usual warm hugs.”

“I cannot say she was sad or stressed. I can’t say that because I did not see that and I did not hear that.”

Taa Grays, a member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, of which Abdus-Salaam was also a member, noted, “You would be around her and have a very calming feel.”

She called hearing of the news “jarring.”

“It’s hard to put into words how you feel about someone who was at the the pinnacle in the judiciary,” Grays said.

“We all had expectations that she would do more. She would leave a mark in a broader way.”

Claire Gutekunst, president of the New York State Bar Association, said “it was just like a bomb had dropped." She had been at a meeting with a number of affinity bar associations and had to deliver the news to the group.

“It was disbelief and grief,” she said.  

Whittingham also attended the meeting.

“There was a gasp,” she said, followed by shock and tears.

Gutekunst knew the judge professionally through the association and after arguing a case before her about two decades ago.

“I was impressed with her skill as a judge,” she said.

Later, Gutekunst would meet her at a number of events, the most recent being a black-tie dinner in January.

“She didn’t stand on ceremony,” she said. “She was unfailingly gracious.”

Detectives have been actively reconstructing a timeline of events after finding Abdus-Salaam's body.

She was last seen Monday night around 7 p.m. and spoke with her assistant Tuesday morning after spending the weekend with her husband in New Jersey, police said.

Her body was discovered fully clothed in the river, with no apparent injuries or external physical abnormalities, police said.

Detectives found a MetroCard on her, which was last used on 42nd Street, giving investigators “an immediate lead,” Boyce explained.  

However, “we have a lot of questions we need to answer,” he said Thursday.

Abdus-Salaam, a longtime Harlem resident, was born in working-class Washington, D.C. in 1952. She got her start as a lawyer at Brooklyn Legal Services in East Brooklyn, according to her online biography.

She eventually worked her way up to become the general counsel for the city’s Office of Labor Services, before working for the state attorney general and being elected to the state’s Supreme Court.