Susan Sarandon is on a crusade to help save an inmate’s life.
In a case of life reflecting art, the actress – who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean, a real-life nun who grows close to a man on death row, in the film Dead Man Walking – is seeking to have a stay of execution granted for death row inmate Richard Glossip, 52.
“Sister Helen Prejean called me and convinced me that this guy, Richard Glossip, was innocent and needed another chance to have better representation to present new information that would establish a reasonable doubt as to his guilt and save him from being executed,” Sarandon, 68, tells PEOPLE.
Glossip was arrested in 1997 in connection with the killing of a man named Barry Van Treese, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat in an Oklahoma motel. A man named Justin Sneed confessed to the murder, but told investigators that Glossip, the motel’s handyman at the time, paid him to commit the murder, according to The Washington Post.
After striking a plea deal, Sneed received a sentence of life in prison without parole, while Glossip was sentenced to the death penalty in 1998.
“Since the only real option we had is press, because [Glossip] has gone through a number of trials and has exhausted that route, I decided to help,” Sarandon explains.
In addition to signing her own name on petitions on websites like MoveOn.org and change.org, Sarandon has helped amass more than 150,000 signatures from people hoping to convince Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to allow Glossip, who is scheduled for lethal injection on Sept. 16, to live.
“We’re hoping that the governor will give a stay and ask for a clemency hearing so they can look at this information that hasn’t really been looked at before,” Sarandon says.
“The only thing linking Richard Glossip to the murder is the testimony of the murderer, who was 19 at the time, and gave eight statements that all contradict each other,” she adds, explaining why she – and the thousands of petition signers – thinks Glossip’s case deserves to be reviewed.
Citing that there’s allegedly “no physical evidence or motive linking [Glossip] to the crime,” Sarandon says she believes that Sneed lied to police about Glossip’s involvement with the murder in order to leverage a plea deal for himself. “In Oklahoma alone, of the 10 people that have been exonerated so far, four of them were based on the discrediting of a snitch, and we feel that’s what’s happening in this case,” she says.
Fallin said in a statement issued Aug. 10 that she has no plans to delay Glossip’s execution, adding, “The state of Oklahoma is prepared to hold him accountable for his crimes and move forward with his scheduled execution.”
Growing frustrated with the governor’s reluctance to grant a stay, Sarandon told the U.K.’s Sky News earlier this month, “The governor of Oklahoma is just a horrible person – and a woman, so it’s even more discouraging.”
While she’s since apologized for the comments, the actress explains, “It’s a question of life or death, and I got very emotional about it and I feel that she’s doing a horrible thing but I don’t know that she’s a horrible person.”
Sarandon, who believes the death penalty is “arbitrary and capricious,” adds that she feels our judicial system is broken. “Even if you’re for the death penalty, it’s been showed time and time again that the way we deal with it is not a deterrent, it’s not fair, and it’s extremely expensive. If that money were put to other use, you could have better education, and better infrastructure in this country.”
Furthermore, Sarandon believes Glossip’s case is just another example of how socioeconomic status plays an unfair role in the legal system. “If you’re poor the chance of you getting any kind of decent representation is pretty small,” she says. “The prison system has become an industry and is pretty racist.”
Part of the solution, she believes, is “preventing people from going to jail in the first place, and that has to do with education and getting people jobs and economics.”
Sarandon has been in communication with Glossip as he nears the day of his scheduled execution. “He’s hopeful and appreciative of everyone that signed on and found more information,” she says of his mental state. “There are a lot of people in Oklahoma who had no idea about the details of his case, and especially since it’s their tax money that will be killing him, they were very thankful and have sent letters of support.”
The former motel manager, who’s been on death row for 17 years, has “gone through ups and downs,” but Sarandon says, “He feels that, at least because people are aware of his case now, that if he is executed, it will surely lead to the problem in the system being given more attention.”
While Glossip “wants to live, he’s happy to be a piece of that education.”
Sarandon and Prejean will appear on the Dr. Phil show to talk about Glossip’s case and the death penalty in an episode set to air Monday, Aug. 31.