The Agony And The Ecstasy

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All she needed now was someone to tell her story. Glamour took the bait.

In August 1999, Glamour published a lengthy story about Ralston, sympathetically portraying her as a country girl who naively fell for a fabulously successful businessman who gave her ecstasy on their first date. In this version of events, Pofahl, the "creep," tantalized Ralston, the shy beauty, with fancy cars and a high-paying day job while he sold drugs behind her back. In the end, Ralston came off as a "blindly loyal wife" whose husband had sold her out to save himself. It made for great copy. In fact, the story was so convincing that former Arkansas Governor David Pryor says he was compelled to lobby personally on Ralston's behalf after reading it.

"I became incensed. At first I was bewildered. I couldn't believe this was happening in our country," says Pryor, who ironically was one of the many politicians who supported the harsh drug laws Congress enacted in the 1980s. "I just became obsessed with Amy's case. Ultimately I called up the Justice Department, the pardons people, and asked if it was permissible to come and make a case to them. They said yes."

In his lobbying effort, Pryor, a former U.S. senator, teamed with former Arkansas Governor and U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, who hails from Ralston's hometown and is one of President Clinton's most ardent supporters. Together, they spent two hours arguing that Ralston's case should be forwarded to Clinton for a clemency review.

That effort was just the cake. Bumpers and Pryor put the icing on it in May, when Clinton returned to Little Rock and invited out his two old friends for a casual dinner. Pryor used the occasion to discreetly advance Ralston's cause.

"I handed him a file on Amy. Frankly, I don't know if he ever opened it," Pryor says. "We never discussed it after that."

Two months later, on July 7, 2000, the White House quietly and without elaboration announced that Clinton had commuted the sentences of Ralston and three other female inmates, all of whom were convicted of drug crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than the men associated with their cases. According to a White House aide, Clinton felt the woman had been in prison long enough.

By sundown, Ralston was free.

New Attitude

"When you live a story like mine," Ralston says during an interview inside her parents' middle-class home in Charleston, "you expect that as soon as the movie starts, you know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is."

As Ralston sits inside the dining nook, her reflection captured in the polished surface of the table, it's still hard to imagine that hers is the face of a national enemy. With her long dirty-blond hair and sharp, lanky features, she still has the good looks of a cover girl, though her face is beginning to show signs of wear. Bright and friendly, Ralston easily opens up in conversation, and it's tempting to believe that she's been horribly wronged.

To this day, Ralston maintains that the story about why she wound up in prison boils down to betrayal.

"He got in trouble, and he turned to me for help. Then he turned on me to help himself," Ralston says of Pofahl. "When it came to be my turn [for getting help], there was nobody."

This is the same story Ralston told Glamour, and it was convincing enough to win the sympathy of the president of the United States. Evidently, Ralston has come to believe it herself.

There are, of course, many truths woven into Ralston's tale: Our drug laws are reactionary, and the attempts to prosecute those who violate them are fruitless and harsh, particularly if the goal is to prevent drug use. Today, teenagers can shell out $20 and trip on ecstasy all night long if they want, and no cop or prosecutor can stop it.

Although Strauss says his office disagrees with Clinton's decision, he concedes that the nine years Ralston served was substantial. Still, the case leaves him troubled.

"There was a time, some years ago, when maybe society didn't consider wives and girlfriends responsible for their actions. Maybe we have gone past that point, I don't know," says Strauss, who adds, "this case has consumed a number of hours of my life that are now meaningless."

In the end, Ralston says, nothing will change until people start being honest about drugs.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley