Sheila Abdus-Salaam, 65, the first black woman to be appointed to the New York Court of Appeals, was found dead in the Hudson River in early April. Her death was met with an outpouring of grief and testaments of her success from family and colleagues, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appointed her to the state’s highest court in 2013. But weeks after Abdus-Salaam’s body was discovered, questions still surround her death and the subsequent investigation.
According to a report from the Associated Press, the New York City Police Department suggested that because no evidence of foul play was found that Abdus-Salaam might have died from suicide. Her family and friends, however, dispute that suggestion, saying that it’s a misrepresentation of the woman they knew.
The case seems to have been plagued by mismanagement and internal NYPD leaks from the outset. A report at The Outline notes that the New York Post published their story about the judge’s death before the NYPD sent an email notifying the press about the discovery of Abdus-Salaam’s body (Jezebel’s initial post was based on that New York Post report). Via The Outline:
The New York Post story on the judge’s death, published half an hour before the NYPD email went out, reported that it “appeared to be a suicide” to “sources.” The New York Times’ and New York Daily News’ initial stories did not make that leap, saying only that the judge’s body bore no signs of trauma and police found “no signs of criminality.”
The next day, however, both outlets were alleging suicide, despite the NYPD’s Chief of Detectives, Robert Boyce, telling reporters after a swearing-in ceremony at the Police Academy in College Point, Queens, that morning that it was “too early to tell right now.”
The Outline notes that while the NYPD was officially cautious about labeling Abdus-Salaam’s death a suicide, that was undermined by “leaks” to numerous newspapers. Some of those leaks included speculation that Abdus-Salaam might have ended her life because she was depressed or “despondent” over the deaths of her mother and brother, as well as inaccurate information about her life (following initial reports, numerous publications, including this one, repeated that Abdus-Salaam was the “first female Muslim judge,” but that appears imprecise). The suggestion that Abdus-Salaam decided to end her own life after the suicide death of both her mother and brother seem to have come from “sources” inside the NYPD. Those claims, however, are also inaccurate. According to the family, Abdus-Salaam’s mother died in 2012 at the age of 92 and “did not take her own life.” Her brother died in 2014 from lung cancer.
Abdus-Salaam’s husband, Episcopal priest Rev. Canon Gregory Jacobs, has rejected the suggestion that his wife ended her own life. In a statement, he said that the coverage has “frequently included unsubstantiated comments concerning my wife’s possible mental and emotional state of mind at the time of her death.”
“Those of us who loved Sheila and knew her well do not believe that these unfounded conclusions have any basis in reality,” he added.
Last week, the NYPD shared a flyer asking for information in the case. The AP reports that, as of now, the NYPD has no additional evidence in the case other than various security videos that captured some of her locations in the hours leading up to her death. The police continue to treat Abdus-Salaam’s death as “suspicious” and the case remains open.