What happened to Judge Sheila

How the story of a New York judge's death was botched.

What happened to Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam?

How the story of a New York judge's death was botched.

On April 12, at 1:55 p.m., reporters and editors subscribed to emails from the New York City police scanner received a blast that said, in old-school, indelicate police code, that a dead-on-arrival “floater” had been found at W 132nd St. and Henry Hudson Parkway.

Within a few hours, it would become known that the body was that of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first black woman to serve on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. The NYPD sent out an email blast to reporters at 6:36 p.m. that read:

On Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at approximately 1345 hours police responded to a 911 call of an aided female in the water in the vicinity of Hudson River and West 132 Street within the confines of the 26 Precinct. Upon arrival, police discovered an unidentified female unconscious and unresponsive. NYPD Harbor Unit removed the female to West 125 Street and Marginal Street where EMS responded and pronounced the female deceased. The medical examiner will determine the cause of death and the investigation is ongoing.

The email concluded by identifying Abdus-Salaam, 65, as the deceased.

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.”

Boyce’s caution was undermined by anonymous leaks to reporters. Anonymous sources are customary when reporting on anything involving the NYPD. It’s a monolithic entity where few are authorized to speak on the record, and their public information office is notoriously uncooperative. But in this case, the blind sourcing was coupled with reporting later called into question, leaving readers confused and mistrustful. And in today’s aggregation-heavy media environment, even errors that are corrected get repeated ad nauseum.

Nick Reisman, an Albany-based cable news reporter, was the first to flag erroneous reporting on Abdus-Salaam.

In a blog post titled “Anatomy of an Error,” published April 13 at 5:44 p.m., Reisman reported that the commonly-held belief that Abdus-Salaam was the first Muslim judge in the United States may not have been accurate.

Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Citing Court of Appeals spokesman Gary Spencer, Reisman wrote that Abdus-Salaam’s first husband was Muslim, but the judge herself never converted.

“Spencer, the court spokesman, told me Abdus-Salaam did not mind being referred to as a Muslim woman and never corrected it,” Reisman wrote.

Reisman’s analysis traced the error back to a 2013 press release from a state senator’s office, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed the judge to the state’s highest court.

“Assumptions were made by reporters, at best given only a cursory check and then reported,” Reisman wrote. “And during her life she never thought it was important to correct the error, if she saw one at all.”

Anonymous sources are customary when reporting on anything involving the NYPD.

This was just the first of the erroneous reporting that ultimately prompted the judge’s family to set up a website with a series of statements.

One of the statements issued by the judge’s family clarified that Abdus-Salaam, born Sheila Turner, had “not been a practicing Muslim for the past 20 years,” prompting some reporters to speculate that perhaps the mischaracterization of her religion was not so stark if she had identified as Muslim at some point. A Buzzfeed story stated that in “her early years in New York,” the judge and her first husband “began to follow the Nation of Islam and converted to the Muslim religion,” appearing to cite a UNC law school professor named Ted Shaw, a law school classmate of Abdus-Salaam.

The same day that the NYPD Chief of Detectives told reporters it was too soon to call the judge’s death suicide, the New York Daily News reported that “a police source” said the judge had “a recent battle with depression,” while “a well-placed court source” added that she had begun “taking medication for her darkening moods just a few weeks before her apparent suicide.”

But at the College Point press briefing, Boyce told reporters the NYPD did not know of any prescribed medication the judge had been taking. The NYPD was still working to piece together a timeline leading up to her death, but they had gone through her apartment and found no drugs. Boyce said she spent the weekend in New Jersey with her husband, a Newark-based Episcopal priest she married last year. (Reports indicate they maintained separate residences and spent weekends together.) A MetroCard recovered from her body was last used at 42nd Street on Monday, and she spoke with her assistant Tuesday morning, Boyce said. According to the New York Times, she had called her assistant to say she wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be coming in to work.

“At that point, our case picks up. We’re trying to find out exactly her whereabouts thereafter,” Boyce said. "We have a long way to go. We've spoken to many people in her family about her history. We don't believe she was on any kind of drugs at all."

As Boyce was speaking, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was conducting an autopsy on the judge, which began at 9:30 a.m. April 13. The autopsy was inconclusive, and the examiner’s official statement for the time being is that the cause and manner of death are pending further studies.

The reporting of suicide seems to have been fueled by misinformation about Abdus-Salaam’s family history. Media outlets initially reported that both the judge’s mother and brother had committed suicide around this time of year, suggesting that she may have been under stress due to those memories.

“Police suspect the Court of Appeals judge was despondent over her mother’s death a year ago, as well as her brother’s suicide,” the New York Daily News wrote on April 20. “The pain, sources said, may have driven her to suicide.”

But her family’s statements have denied those claims.

“Sheila’s mother, the matriarch of our family who died at age 92 in 2012, did not take her own life. Shelia’s younger brother, who died in 2014, lost his battle with terminal lung cancer,” the family wrote on April 19.

The New York Times corrected their reporting on the mother’s death in their April 13 story on the judge, attributing the mistake to two law enforcement officials, but continued to report that her brother “shot himself to death, according to two law enforcement officials.”

The specificity of two law enforcement officials is noteworthy: While anonymous sourcing practices vary newsroom-to-newsroom, a common standard is to have at least two sources who can confirm a given piece of information.

Despite her family’s protestations, media outlets have continued to report that the judge’s death was a suicide. The Times cited “close friends” of the judge who suggested she “may have struggled with the pressure that came with a heavy caseload and other responsibilities, such as her speaking engagements.”

The only on-the-record quote about the judge appears in the Times’ April 13 story alleging suicide, attributed to Case Western Reserve University Vice President Marilyn Mobley, apparently a friend of the judge who had seen her recently: “What she shared with me is she had been under a lot of stress recently and that she was having trouble sleeping… The truth is she was accomplished, resilient and strong, and she had a breaking point like everyone else. I fear it got there.”

Media outlets have continued to report that the judge’s death was a suicide.

When I attempted to confirm the quote with Mobley via email, she directed me to the family’s spokeswoman, who declined to comment beyond the statements posted online.

On April 19, a week after Abdus-Salaam was found and the same day her family posted their statements online, the NYPD issued a formal request for information on her death, officially deeming it “suspicious.”

According to local news outlet DNAinfo, the judge’s death was deemed “suspicious” because police don’t know how she ended up in the water.

"When a body is found floating in a river, it is deemed suspicious in nature," an NYPD spokesman told DNAinfo. It’s unclear why, then, they didn't deem the judge's death suspicious from the start.

On April 21, cable news channel NY1 aired surveillance video showing the judge walking on West 145th Street in Harlem near her apartment Tuesday night. The accompanying story reported that police also had video of her leaving her brownstone at West 131st Street around 8:50 p.m., walking west to Seventh Avenue and then heading north. She appeared on video at 135th Street as well, and on three videos in Riverbank State Park, near the water, the story reports.

In the video, she was wearing the same clothing she was found in: a charcoal gray zip-up sweatshirt with “CANADA” in red and white letters across the chest, black sweatpants, white ankle socks, and white New Balance sneakers. According to an April 21 story in the New York Times, the latest surveillance footage from the park showed her standing near the water’s edge.

Other new clues in the Times’ report included bruises on the judge’s neck and water in her lungs, “suggesting that she was alive when she went into the river.”

The Times also cited an anonymous police official speculating that the judge “had been choked sometime — even days earlier — before going into the river.”

“Investigators indicated it was possible the marks could stem from bruising incurred during her body’s retrieval,” the Times added.

I attempted to confirm some of the blind sourcing with sources of my own. The patchwork of video of Abdus-Salaam's walk the night before she was found seems to have police convinced she committed suicide.

One police source connected the bruising on her neck to the “15-foot drop into the water” from where she might have jumped.

“It makes sense that the only visible sign of anything to her body is very, very slight minor bruising on part of her neck — not like she got strangled, but just, like, an inexplicable bit of bruising on the side,” the source said. “[You] could potentially get some bruising on her from smacking into the water.”

It’s not definitive, to be sure. “Life would be easier if we had a video of her leaping into the water, but we don’t,” the source said.

And the family’s protestations, to those in the law enforcement community, are understandable.

“That’s what family members say and that’s what they want to believe,” a source said.

But those videos only surfaced in the course of the NYPD’s investigation, several days after media outlets published anonymous sources claiming suicide, and after the undoubtedly heartbroken family came forward with their statements asking reporters and officials to stop speculating.

Other than the quote from Marilyn Mobley, who now declines to speak, nothing about Abdus-Salaam’s mental health has been shared on the record.

Some columnists have condemned media speculation about the judge’s death while engaging in their own. The Daily News’ Shaun King recalled the murder last month of Timothy Caughman at the hands of James Jackson, who traveled to New York from Maryland specifically to kill black men.

“The fact that Judge Abdus-Salaam was black in a time and place where violent anti-blackness is very real concerns me. Again, maybe that's not at play here, but what's disturbing is that we live in a nation where it very well could be,” King wrote.

King also described the judge as having “a hard-earned reputation for fighting against corruption and police brutality.” But there are no indications she was disliked by police or prosecutors. In fact, she appears to have been well-respected, even beloved, by both defense attorneys and prosecutors. She started her legal career as a public defender and was described by the New York Times as “the most reliable and steadfast liberal voices, regularly siding with vulnerable parties — the poor, impoverished immigrants and people with mental illnesses, for instance — against more powerful and established interests.” Manhattan’s top criminal prosecutor, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, issued a statement after her death praising her as “smart, principled and rigorously fair,” and others on the prosecutorial side of the law seem to agree.

Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham repeated the misinformation about Abdus-Salaam’s mother and brother’s deaths and, as King did, discussed the complexities of mental illness in black communities.

“Suicide is still one of the great taboos in American society; that sentiment seems especially acute in the African-American community. As we have fought to survive in a nation that can seem hellbent on our destruction, it feels beyond a sin to kill ourselves,” Graham wrote. “Too often, African-Americans, wary of the many ways we are regarded as lesser, equate mental health issues with being damaged, just another demeaning label. But this is a fire that, left unchecked, will consume everything.”

I couldn’t find anyone who would confirm whether or not Abdus-Salaam was taking prescription medication for depression, or whether she was seeking help. Sources said a toxicology report has not yet come back. A representative for her family wouldn’t discuss the issue beyond the statements posted online.

It’s possible that, even when the medical examiner has run all of the available tests, the toxicology report is in, and police have exhausted every witness statement and shred of video surveillance available, there won’t be a definitive answer to what happened to Abdus-Salaam before her death. It’s possible that she went for a walk and encountered someone unstable who forced her into the water. It’s also possible that she was going through some personal turmoil.

Graham, the Boston Globe columnist, was correct on at least one point: that we should speak more plainly about mental illness in general.

By all accounts, Abdus-Salaam was a friendly, affable person who was candid about the difficulties of her job. A law school professor who brings his class to the Court of Appeals to watch arguments told Buzzfeed that the judge often came over to talk to his students about the cases they were watching.

“It wasn’t ‘you’re lucky to be speaking with me’ with her — it was exactly the opposite,” the professor told Buzzfeed. “She was thrilled. She would be very, very candid about how tough the cases were, open about the fact that voting in the cases was close and that she struggled with how to vote.”

I’m inclined to believe that if she was struggling, the woman who made time to speak candidly with students about the challenges of her profession would, as Graham said, want her suffering to be a “teachable moment,” to compel others to reach out for help and support before they feel past hope. But we don’t actually know for a fact that she was struggling. The only compelling evidence to support that theory is a conversation recounted by a friend. Unless the medical examiner, police or her family come forward with new evidence, all we can conclude is that a remarkable woman met an untimely death.

Danielle Tcholakian is a freelance reporter in New York City.