The future associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Sheila Abdus-Salaam (née Turner) grew up in a working-class family in Washington D.C. Abdus-Salaam graduated from Columbia Law School after obtaining her bachelor’s degree at Barnard College. Her career was impressive and lengthy, including sixteen years as a New York Supreme Court justice and time as a public defender in Brooklyn representing people who could not afford lawyers.
When appointed in 2013, Abdus-Salaam spoke of her commitment to promoting ‘justice, fairness, and equality’ to all those in the state of New York. Justice Abdus-Salaam championed rights of those more commonly discriminated against and ignored.
She won one of her first cases for over 30 female NYC bus drivers who had been discriminated against and denied promotions. A key landmark decision of hers was defending the rights of non-biological parents in same-sex relationships to custody and visitation when the couple conceived and raised a child together.
In a 2014 YouTube video by Project Brownstone, Sheila Abdus-Salaam discusses her childhood attending public school where she says she ‘learned very little’ about her African-American history. She says that the first book she ever received was a book of African fairytales from her uncle, and that this sparked her interest in ‘who we are…as a people.’
On 12th April 2017, police responded to a call about a woman in the Hudson River. The body was identified as Abdus-Salaam, and the 65-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene; Justice Abdus-Salaam had been reported missing a day earlier.
Initial results of an autopsy were inconclusive, and police deemed the death suspicious, with no evidence of a suicide note, yet no sign of trauma. Many social media users pointed to foul play, and suspicions began to circulate.
Later, it was reported that Abdus-Salaam was captured on CCTV footage nine times over the course of the hours leading up to her death, heading towards the river; the last recorded footage of her shows the judge standing on the shore of the Hudson. New York Daily News reported that according to some friends and sources, Abdus-Salaam had struggled with depression, while a statement from the judge’s husband rejected the idea that his wife would have committed suicide.
An autopsy uncovered bruises on Abdus-Salaam’s neck and water in her lungs, implicit of her being alive upon entering the river. One official told the New York Times that the judge could have been choked before going into the water, while other investigators said the bruises may have been sustained during the retrieval of her body.
On 3rd May 2017, NYPD announced that it had closed its investigation into the death of Justice Abdus-Salaam. Chief of detectives Robert Boyce stated that he believed she had committed suicide, but the medical examiner would be the one to make the final determination.
Four months on, and the death of Sheila Abdus-Salaam remains mysterious and undoubtedly tragic. While speculation continues to circulate around the exact circumstances of her death, what is truly important is that she is remembered for her life and work.
Governor Cuomo, who had appointed Sheila Abdus-Salaam, expressed his sadness at her passing, and described Justice Abdus-Salaam as a ‘trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all’.
There should be more public servants, in the USA and elsewhere, with Abdus-Salaam’s same moral compass, sense of duty, and dedication. She is inspirational as a pioneering African-American woman, but also as a devoted and fair jurist. On the New York Courts website, Abdus-Salaam cited lawyer and civil rights activist Frankie Muse Freeman as an inspiration following her visit to Abdus-Salaam’s high school: ‘she was doing what I wanted to do: using the law to help people.’
In Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s own words: ‘this great-granddaughter of slaves is the first African-American woman on the highest court of the state of New York…so all the way from Arrington, Virginia, where my family was the property of someone else to my sitting on the highest court of 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.’
Written by Ellen Pickett