Police are treating the recent death of Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American woman to serve on the highest court in New York, as “suspicious,” officials said this week.
Abdus-Salaam was found dead last week after her husband had reported her missing earlier in the day, according to CBS New York. Police said her body, which they found on the shore of the Hudson River near Harlem, had no obvious signs of trauma.
The NYPD said they are treating the death as “suspicious” because there was no immediate indication of suicide or homicide.
“We haven’t found any clear indications of criminality, but at this point we can’t say for sure. We’re hoping if anyone could shed any light into the hours before her disappearance, it would help us establish what happened,” NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis told the New York Post.
The NYPD 26th Precinct tweeted a public appeal for assistance on Tuesday, describing what Abdus-Salaam was last seen wearing and encouraging anyone with information to contact authorities.
Police initially treated Abdus-Salaam’s death as a suicide, though a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner said the results of an autopsy conducted last week were inconclusive, The Associated Press reported. The investigation is ongoing.
Members of the late judge’s family released a statement on Wednesday that refuted reports claiming Abdus-Salaam had taken her own life, according to the New York Law Journal.
“Despite the ongoing investigation, some media outlets and others have conjectured that Sheila was the victim of a ‘probable suicide,’” stated Abdus-Salaam’s widower, the Rev. Canon Gregory Jacobs, according to the journal. “These reports have frequently included unsubstantiated comments concerning my wife’s possible mental and emotional state of mind at the time of her death.”
The family also denied that Abdus-Salaam’s mother and brother had committed suicide in the years prior to her death, as some media outlets had reported.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) appointed Abdus-Salaam, a veteran judge and lawyer, to be an associate judge on the Court of Appeals in 2013. In a statement released last week, Cuomo called his colleague a “trailblazing jurist” who fought for a fair and just New York.
“As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the state’s Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer,” Cuomo said of the 65-year-old judge. “Through her writings, her wisdom, and her unshakable moral compass, she was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come.”
Abdus-Salaam grew up in a poor family of seven children in Washington, D.C., according to the New York State Bar. She went on to graduate from Barnard College in 1974 and received her law degree from Columbia University in 1977.
She started her impressive legal career as a staff attorney at East Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation, before going on to serve as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Bureau of New York State’s attorney general’s office and, later, as general counsel for the New York City Office of Labor Services.
As an assistant attorney general, Abdus-Salaam won an anti-discrimination lawsuit involving more than 30 female New York City bus drivers who were denied promotions, The New York Times reported.
In 1991, Abdus-Salaam was elected as a Civil Court Judge for New York City and served there until she was elected in 1993 to the Manhattan Supreme Court, where she served for 15 years.
She was appointed by Gov. David Paterson as associate justice of the appellate division in 2009. Cuomo appointed her four years later to serve as one of seven judges on the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
“Throughout my legal career, I have sought to uphold the laws of our state and treat all those who appear before me fairly and with respect and dignity,” Abdus-Salaam said at the time.
Last August, Abdus-Salaam helped to expand the definition of parenthood and allow LGBTQ parents to seek the same parenting rights as biological parents, according to Lambda Legal, a New York-based nonprofit civil rights organization.
“Judge Abdus-Salaam saw clearly how damaging it was to keep LGBT parents from their children,” Lambda Legal wrote in a blog post. “We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. She touched the lives of many New Yorkers; her legacy will live on.”
Carl Heastie, the first African-American to serve as the speaker of New York State Assembly, said in a statement last week that Abdus-Salaam was “highly respected” and an “inspiration to many.”
“Her passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill,” Heastie said. “This is a sad day for all New Yorkers.”
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Abdus-Salaam was Muslim. Her first husband was Muslim and she kept his surname after they divorced, but she herself had not converted, according to a court spokesman who spoke to The Huffington Post.
This story has been updated with new details about the police investigation into Abdus-Salaam’s death and comments from her family members.
Hayley Miller contributed reporting.