When New York prosecutors wanted to try Little Rock resident Catherine Nicole Cowan on drug smuggling charges in 1984, they ran into an unexpected roadblock: Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

During his 12 years as governor, Clinton has routinely approved hundreds of extradition orders returning accused felons to other states. But in the case of Cowan, a 19-year-old defendant with an unusually well-connected lawyer, Clinton balked.

After delaying action for months, the Arkansas governor refused to sign her extradition, saying it would be "unconscionable" to permit the woman to face New York's harsh drug laws.

When that decision provoked public criticism, Clinton retreated. But he did so only after personally calling the New York prosecutor and negotiating reduced charges for Cowan -- the only time he has taken such action as governor.

Today, Clinton's handling of the Cowan case remains among the more controversial episodes in his role as his state's chief law enforcement officer. Aides contend that Clinton simply showed his willingness to go out on a limb to prevent a miscarriage of justice.

But critics charge the case shows how Clinton will sometimes stretch the system for a favored few. Cowan's lawyer was William R. Wilson, a longtime Clinton campaign contributor who had tried cases and shared legal fees with the governor's wife, Hillary Clinton.

At the time the Cowan extradition request was pending, Wilson was -- at Clinton's request -- defending the governor's half-brother, Roger Clinton, on federal cocaine charges.

Clinton asked Wilson to represent Roger Clinton because the governor "wanted his brother to have the best criminal defense attorney he could have," Betsey Wright, Clinton's former chief of staff, recalled in an interview earlier this year.

Wright, a top aide in Clinton's presidential campaign, acknowledged that Wilson's representation of Cowan created concern among the governor's staff that his participation in the woman's case "could be perceived as a conflict of interest." But, she added, "there was a determination it was okay; you can't tell somebody you can't have the lawyer they want."

The case began when Cowan, an honor student at Connecticut's Choate Rosemary Hall preparatory school, was charged with helping her boyfriend smuggle $30,000 worth of cocaine into New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as part of a scheme to sell the drug to their fellow students.

Prosecutors alleged Cowan collected the money, kept the list of customers and bought airplane tickets to Venezuela, where the cocaine was purchased.

But after being hired by Cowan's family to block her extradition, Wilson wrote Clinton that the student was only guilty of "peripheral involvement in a foolish lark." He also tried to reassure Clinton about any potential conflict. "Bottom line, I do not think there will be much of a fuss in the press," he wrote Clinton on Feb. 21, 1985.

After holding a public hearing, Clinton denied New York's request in May 1985, 10 months after he received it. Clinton argued that sending Cowan back to New York was unfair because she had been charged under a stringent New York felony drug law that carried a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years without parole.

Although conviction of a similar offense in Arkansas carried a 10-to-40-year term, time off for good behavior and parole could have cut that to less than two years.

But Clinton's decision provoked critical newspaper editorials and a stinging public protest from Queens, N.Y., district attorney John J. Santucci. A month later, Clinton phoned Santucci to resolve the issue. After Santucci agreed to try Cowan on a lesser charge that carried a sentence of two to six years, Clinton signed the extradition papers.

In the end, the New York charges were dropped when federal prosecutors in Connecticut decided to bring their own cases against Cowan and other Choate students involved in the alleged cocaine ring. Cowan pleaded guilty, received probation and never did any prison time.

Since Clinton's initial decision to refuse New York's extradition request, governors of at least seven other states have rebuffed extradition requests.

Silas Wasserstrom, a Georgetown University law professor and criminal law specialist, said there was nothing wrong with Clinton's action "if he really was convinced the New York law was grossly immoral."