1st Black Woman on NY's Highest Court Found Dead by River - NECN
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1st Black Woman on NY's Highest Court Found Dead by River

Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a legal trailblazer: the first black woman to be appointed to New York state's highest court and the first Muslim woman to serve as a judge in the U.S.



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    The first black woman appointed to New York State's highest court, and the first Muslim woman to serve as a U.S. judge, was found dead in the Hudson River off Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon, authorities said.

    Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam was found unresponsive in the water shortly before 2 p.m., according to police. Her body showed no obvious signs of trauma, and police declined to speculate on the cause of her death.

    NYPD officers were responding to reports of a person floating in the river near West 132nd Street and Henry Hudson Parkway when they found her, authorities said. Her body was taken to the medical examiner's office in Kips Bay, where the exact cause of her death can be determined.

    Abdus-Salaam's husband left the couple's home in Harlem on Wednesday night escorted by police and a church bishop. 

    The 65-year-old Manhattan resident was elected to the Supreme Court of the State of New York in 1993, where she remained until 2009. She was serving on the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State, before her death. She was appointed to the position by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013.

    Cuomo called her a "pioneer" and a "force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come" in a statement Wednesday.

    "I was proud to appoint her to the state’s highest court and am deeply saddened by her passing," Cuomo said.  

    Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said in a statement he was "shocked and saddened" to hear of her death, calling her "a dedicated public servant who served New York with honor and distinction as the first African-American woman to sit on the Court of Appeals." 

    A Washington, D.C. native, Abdus-Salaam graduated from Barnard College with a degree in economics in 1974 and went on to receive her law degree from Columbia University in 1977 as a Charles Evans Hughes Fellow.


    In Harlem on Wednesday, friends and colleagues remembered her as a kind, gentle and loving fixture of her community. 

    Neighbor Michele Harris said she was shocked when a neighbor called her and told her the news. 

    "I feel like I want to cry," Harris said. "It's a loss." 

    On her block of West 131st Street, Abdus-Salaam was part of a nonprofit called Project Brownstone, which helps under-served youth. 

    "She was amazing because she really inspired the kids," Project Brownstone Founder Earl Davis said. "She was able to show them something that was outside of their realm." 

    To those who knew her on a personal level outside the courthouse, it's that spirit they will miss the most. 

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    "It's shocking," Davis said. "I just don't understand what happened." 


    The Associated Press contributed to this report.