Jessie Alexander is just over 5 feet tall, frail, and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that is expected to kill her within a year. To help with breathing, she uses an oxygen machine.
Since July, Alexander, 67, has been living with relatives and receiving home hospice care — and that’s an outrage to Alicia Russell-Jenkins.
A Philadelphia jury found Alexander guilty of killing Russell-Jenkins’ father in 1984, and a judge sentenced her to life in prison with no chance for parole. When Alexander shot Willie Russell, she was already on probation for voluntary manslaughter after killing her brother-in-law in 1980.
Russell-Jenkins, 48, learned in May that Alexander’s lawyer used the state’s compassionate release law to petition for her release to an East Falls hospice facility due to her failing health and that Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson granted her wish.
In July, Bronson approved another petition from Alexander’s lawyer allowing her to be cared for by relatives at their home because Alexander’s condition had improved.
Russell-Jenkins said she and her family had insufficient input in the process that freed Alexander. She believes the release of her father’s killer is a miscarriage of justice.
“We’re not talking about a drug dealer. We’re not talking about misdemeanor cases,” said Russell-Jenkins. “We’re talking about a sociopath, a live murderer. We don’t feel safe knowing that she’s out here somewhere.”
She was just 12 when Alexander killed her father, then 33, in his North Philadelphia home. He had ended an affair with Alexander and in a rage, she shot him in the head multiple times, mutilated his body with acid, and dumped it in a vacant lot in the 4300 block of Rising Sun Avenue. The damage to Russell’s body was so severe that the family had to have his body cremated.
Russell-Jenkins said her father was a custodian and doting parent whose death devastated her and her two younger brothers. She can’t understand why his killer was freed.
“If she murdered once, OK, maybe you can forgive her. But then she murdered my father,” said Russell-Jenkins, a nurse and mother of four. “She’s living in peace after committing two cold-blooded murders.”
In a state prison system that houses just over 40,000 people, medical release is rare; the vast majority of terminally ill Pennsylvania prisoners die behind bars. But those who are not ambulatory and projected to live less than a year can apply.
Susan McNaughton, a Corrections Department spokesperson, said about a half dozen people are released in this way each year. Three released since 2019 had been convicted of murder, McNaughton said.
Alexander’s lawyer, Samuel Stretton, represented her for free after learning of her case from the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a 200-year-old nonprofit that works to make prisons more humane. He said no objections were raised by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the state Office of Victim Advocate.
Jane Roh, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, confirmed that the office did not oppose Alexander’s release. “Incarceration for elderly or frail people serves little public safety function, is costly to taxpayers, and harms families and communities,” she said. “Justice demands that we hold people who harm others accountable while treating them humanely.”
She said the office had reached out to Russell-Jenkins’ family while weighing its position on the case, but did not hear back from them before the ruling.
Russell-Jenkins maintains her family did not hear from the D.A.’s office or the advocate’s office until after Bronson had already granted the motion to release her to a care facility. She pointed to an April letter from the victims advocate office, which arrived in an envelope postmarked in May, after the ruling.
Before Bronson’s second ruling — allowing Alexander to move from the facility to a relative’s home — Russell-Jenkins, her daughter, Dominique Jenkins, and her cousin, Leatrice Russell, sent him letters opposing her release. Bronson read the letters and noted how “vehemently” they opposed releasing Alexander, according to a letter Russell-Jenkins received from the District Attorney’s Office, but their arguments didn’t sway the judge.
Stretton, Alexander’s lawyer, said the law was followed in seeking her release. He noted that Alexander must wear an electronic ankle monitor at all times.
“She’s served a long time, since 1984 for serious crimes. … I don’t quite understand why victims, after all these years, might not have a little bit of forgiveness,” he said. “It helps the healing to forgive. But that’s neither here nor there. This is not a morality play. The statute allows it, and we’re trying to help prisoners who can’t help themselves to die with a little more dignity and less pain.”
Joan Porter, a Pennsylvania Prison Society volunteer who served 27 years on the nonprofit’s board, said prisoners, like others, change over time and should be given credit for that evolution. “What she did was terrible, but she’s not that person anymore, and even if she is that person, which I find very difficult to believe, keeping her in jail isn’t going to bring the other families’ family back,” she said.
“I’m sorry that they’re still so angry about it, and I’m sorry that they don’t have a little bit more compassion as many of the families that we deal with do,” Porter added.
Jessie Alexander could not be reached for comment, but her daughter, Ingrid, spoke on her behalf.
Ingrid was 14 when her mother killed Willie Russell. Now 50, she lives in North Carolina but has been back and forth to visit her mother in Philadelphia since her release.
She said her mother has lived a hard life, which included losing a 13-year-old son to a drunk driver shortly after she killed Russell, and being in physically abusive relationships with both men that she killed.
“My mother suffered a lot. She suffered black eyes. She suffered abuse. In my eyes, as a child, it was self-defense regardless of what she was convicted of,” Ingrid Alexander said. “I never thought that she would get some compassion, because people didn’t see what we saw.”