Sheila Abdus-Salaam, United States' first female Muslim judge, drowns in New York's Hudson River

An appeals court judge, the first black woman to serve on New York's highest court and the first Muslim woman judge in the United States, was found dead in the Hudson River in Manhattan. Sheila Abdus-Salaam, 65, an associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals, was pulled from the Hudson River and pronounced dead on Wednesday after being alerted by an emergency call, police said Thursday.

Her husband had reported her missing on Tuesday, US media said. "The medical examiner will determine the cause of death and the investigation is ongoing," New York police said in a statement. State Governor Andrew Cuomo hailed Abdus-Salaam as a "trailblazing jurist" and extended his sympathies to her family, loved ones and colleagues.

"As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the state's court of appeals, she was a pioneer," he said. "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."

The Associated Press reported that police detectives, retracing the final hours of Abdus-Salaam, have found no signs of foul play, supporting the belief it was a suicide, some law enforcement officials said on Thursday. Speaking to reporters about the death of Abdus-Salaam, New York Police Department Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce declined to answer questions about whether she took her own life.

A file photo of Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam. AP

A file photo of Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam. AP

But two other law enforcement officials said on Thursday that investigators were treating the death as a suicide. One of the officials said both the judge's mother and brother had died in recent years around Easter, the brother by suicide. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation hasn't been completed.

Meanwhile, results of an autopsy conducted Thursday were inconclusive. "The cause and manner of death are pending further studies following today's examination," Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the city's medical examiner, said in a statement.

The 65-year-old Abdus-Salaam had spent the weekend with her husband at their New Jersey home, Boyce said. She had her last conversation with her husband by phone around 7 p.m. Monday after she had gone to a second home in Harlem, and also spoke with her assistant on Tuesday, he said.

After the judge was reported missing, the New York City police harbor unit responding to a 911 call retrieved her clothed body from the Hudson on Wednesday. A Metrocard found on the body was last used at a subway stop on 42nd Street in Manhattan on Monday, Boyce said.

"There are no apparent injuries to her body," he said. "It appears to be non-criminal at this point."

Abdus-Salaam was born into a working class family in Washington DC in 1952 and educated at public schools. While researching her family history as a child she discovered that one of her great-grandfathers had been a slave in Virginia, US media said. She studied at New York's Barnard College and Columbia Law School, where she was a classmate of Eric Holder, the first black US attorney general, who served under former president Barack Obama.

Abdus-Salaam began her legal career at East Brooklyn Legal Services, which works against poverty, racial and social injustice, before serving as a lawyer for the New York state government and city's office of labor services. She was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Cuomo in 2013.

"Her personal warmth, uncompromising sense of fairness, and bright legal mind were an inspiration to all of us who had the good fortune to know her," the court said.

She lived in Harlem.

With inputs from AFP and The Associated Press

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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2017 10:33:05 IST

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