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Husband of New York judge found dead challenges reports of apparent suicide

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2017-04-21 Samantha Schmidt
Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African American woman to serve on New York’s top court, was found dead last week in the Hudson River. © AP/Mike Groll Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African American woman to serve on New York’s top court, was found dead last week in the Hudson River.

The sudden death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam — and the hours that led up to it — remains shrouded in mystery.

Shortly after the body of Abdus-Salaam, the first African American woman to serve on New York’s top court, was found floating fully clothed in the Hudson River with no apparent signs of trauma or criminality, local police said they were treating the death as an apparent suicide.

But about a week later, following an inconclusive autopsy, authorities have begun asking for the public’s help in the investigation. While there are still no signs of foul play, the case is being treated as suspicious, a spokesman from the New York Police Department said.

And on Wednesday, Abdus-Salaam’s widowed husband joined the police in appealing for help from anyone with information that might help determine what happened in the moments before her death. In his first public comments since the death, the judge’s husband, the Rev. Gregory Jacobs, firmly pushed back against reports that her death was an apparent suicide.

“These reports have frequently included unsubstantiated comments concerning my wife’s possible mental and emotional state of mind at the time of her death,” Jacobs, who serves in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, wrote in a statement to NBC News. “Those of us who loved Sheila and knew her well do not believe that these unfounded conclusions have any basis in reality.”

The judge’s extended family also criticized what they said were inaccurate reports that Abdus-Salaam’s mother and brother had committed suicide.

“Sheila’s mother, the matriarch of our family who died at age 92 in 2012, did not take her own life,” their statement read, NBC News reported. “Shelia’s younger brother, who died in 2014, lost his battle with terminal lung cancer.”

Abdus-Salaam was found on the afternoon of April 12, floating in the river near Upper Manhattan wearing sweats and sneakers, authorities said, a day after her husband reported her missing.

In the moments after her inexplicable death, colleagues, relatives and local political leaders remembered the judge as a humble trailblazer. They hailed her as an intelligent, clear and fair decision-maker — a fixture in New York legal circles.

Her husband’s family wrote a message on the website for his church.

“We are deeply grieved at the untimely passing of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, whom her family mourns as a beloved wife and devoted stepmother,” the family wrote. “She gave tirelessly and selflessly as a public servant, mentor, distinguished jurist, and community leader throughout her 40-year legal career. She was greatly admired for compassion, wisdom, commitment to excellence, and revered for her support of and sensitivity to the aspirations of young lawyers and law students.”

Some of Abdus-Salaam’s friends and colleagues described their shock at the possibility that her death may have been a suicide, saying she seemed upbeat in recent days. Yet other close friends told the New York Times that the judge was dealing with a heavy caseload, was in demand as a speaker and may have struggled handling the pressure.

“What she shared with me is she had been under a lot of stress recently and that she was having trouble sleeping,” said Marilyn Mobley, an official at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who saw her friend for breakfast in New York two weeks ago. “The truth is she was accomplished, resilient and strong, and she had a breaking point like everyone else. I fear it got there.”

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