The first test of the state's Innocence Inquiry Commission happens this week in the case of Henry "Hank" Reeves. The former Plymouth police officer has served his full prison sentence after being convicted of taking indecent liberties with his 6-year-old daughter, but because he refused to register as a sex offender, he faces the possibility of a life sentence.
And in a new twist to the case, his daughter, Marquita, now 15, says her grandmother, Barbara Hardy, forced her to testify against her father. (Marquita agreed to be named in this story. )
"I know what the truth is now," she said. "I would like for his name to be cleared, for him to not go through this trouble no more."
Last December, the Commission decided to send Reeves' case to a three-judge panel to consider new evidence. Reeves' hearing began in Pitt County Superior Court this week. He has always maintained his innocence.
In 2001, after two trials in Pitt County Superior Court, Reeves was sentenced to two years in prison on indecent liberties charges based largely on the testimony of his young daughter and his mother-in-law, Barbara Hardy. The first trial resulted in a hung jury.
After his release, Reeves moved to Georgia with his wife, Denise Hardy. Because he refused to register as a sex offender, required under Georgia law, Reeves was jailed without bond and is facing life in prison.
In a news release from the Commission, Executive Director Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, who testified for the defense Monday, said: "This is the type of case that the commission was created for. It involved a detailed and lengthy investigation that could only have been completed with the subpoena power granted to the commission."
The General Assembly created the Commission in 2006. According to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, the Commission is charged with providing an independent and balanced truth-seeking forum for credible claims of innocence. The Commission reviews, investigates and hears post-conviction innocence claims if new evidence of innocence has come to light.
In Reeves' case, the bulk of the new evidence consists of witnesses who did not testify at trial but have since come forward. The new evidence was not heard by the original jury.
If the three judges unanimously agree that Reeves should not have been convicted, they will dismiss the charges. Reeves' attorney, Ernest Conner, said Georgia officials will do the same if Reeves is cleared by the panel.
"Our justice system, it really is one of the best in the world, but it can't be perfect," Conner said. "North Carolina has granted those convicted of a crime an extra avenue to challenge their conviction, and for that I'm proud of the state because I think that's what our justice system owes to its people. It owes them a fair and accurate result, and if you don't have a fair and accurate result for whatever reason, then at least our system should allow you to look into it."
When Reeves' mother-in-law first accused him of molesting his daughter, his wife, who says she was molested by her stepfather when she was 6 years old, was outraged.
"It did something to me," she said. "I was going to find Hank, and I was going to kill him, and that was that."
Denise Hardy said she always warned her children to not let people touch them inappropriately, and to come forward if that happened.
However, Hardy began to doubt Reeves' guilt because her daughter showed no signs of trauma, and the child, who was always very talkative, never approached her mother to tell her what had happened.
In Georgia, an often distraught Reeves told his wife he could not register as a sex offender. Hardy said Reeves told her: "I'm not registering for something I'm not guilty of. I'm not doing it."
This week, Conner will rely on the new testimony of Reeves' teenage daughter in the hopes of reversing what he sees as a grave injustice.
In advance of the hearing, Marquita told the Indy during a telephone interview from her Georgia home that she was "a little worried." She said that during the original trial her grandmother, Barbara Hardy, threatened to "whoop" her if she didn't say what her grandmother told her to say.
"My grandma forced me to lie," Marquita added. "She made me lie."
Conner, who primarily represents clients facing the death penalty, said this case "is as serious as any I've ever done, and I tend to mainly do death penalty cases. On a scale of one to 10, it's a nine and a half. It's a tough case. It's an important case."
The bottom line for Conner is he believes in his client's innocence. "That gives me a lot of comfort. It would be wrong to the innocent people to pursue [this case] if I thought my client was guilty."