The death of the first African-American female judge on New York's highest court has remained a mystery over the past two weeks, with little evidence emerging since the investigation began. The prominent jurist's body was found floating in the Hudson River, but indeterminate signs of a struggle have compounded However, the authorities made a rhetorical change to the case — Judge Sheila Adbus-Salaam's death is now classified as "suspicious" by the NYPD.
The New York Post first reported the new twist in the case Tuesday, citing both named and anonymous sources from inside the NYPD. The new classification reflects the ambiguity of the case, which shows some hallmarks of a self-inflicted death and some of a homicide. The police are also reaching out to the public for help in solving the case, since there's no video evidence of where Abdus-Salaam went after leaving her house on her last day or how she ended up in the river.
NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis told the Post:
We're looking at it as a suspicious death at this point. ... We haven't found any clear indications of criminality, but at this point we can't say for sure. We're hoping if anyone could shed any light into the hours before her disappearance, it would help us establish what happened.
Investigators in the case initially suspected that suicide was the cause of Abdus-Salaam's death, for several reasons. According to Al Jezeera, both Abdus-Salaam's mother and brother had died in recent years around the Easter holiday, and her brother had committed suicide. Abdus-Salaam also had left her house with nothing but a MetroCard, which police said could indicate suicidal intent (though she may have just been out for a morning run).
Yet the autopsy report showed at least one sign of a struggle, some bruising around Abdus-Salaam's neck. Her lungs also had water in them, indicating that she was still breathing when she went into the river. However, according to the Office of the Medical Examiner, her eyes did not show the petechial hemorrhaging, bleeding in the whites of her eyes, consistent with strangulation. Absent further evidence, it's nearly impossible to create a conclusive narrative of Abdus-Salaam's death right now.
Suspicious is certainly an appropriate word to describe Abdus-Salaam's death, which is currently still a mystery to investigators. One anonymous source told the Post that the uncertainty is what prompted the status change in the case, because it's so unclear as to how Adbus-Salaam died.
"God forbid someone a year from now says, 'I killed the judge and this is how I did it,'" and police don't have the evidence to support or refute that claim, the source told the Post. "That's why they're sending out these notices. It's to cover their bases."
Whatever the NYPD's motive, the renewed push for information from the public may achieve the goal of providing badly needed answers in the case.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Abdus-Salaam was Muslim. This is incorrect. Her husband was Muslim, and she took his last name, though she never officially converted to Islam.