A Pitt County man could spend the rest of his life in prison after a three-judge panel upheld his 2001 conviction for taking indecent liberties with his 6-year-old daughter. The verdict, announced late Wednesday, comes after compelling and potentially exonerating testimony from his daughter, now 15, who says she was coerced into testifying against him at the original trial.

Henry “Hank” Reeves already served 20 months on the indecent liberties charge, but could be sentenced to life in prison in Georgia, a result of his refusal to register as a sex offender, required under that state’s law. Reeves has always maintained his innocence.

Reeves’ case was the first in North Carolina approved for a hearing by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Reeves’ case was referred to the judicial panel after the Commission heard new evidence that it concluded might point to Reeves’ innocence. The judges deliberated after hearing closing arguments Wednesday morning.

During the week-long hearing, Reeves’ defense attorney, Ernest Conner, put several members of Reeves’ family, including his daughter, Marquita, on the stand. Each testified that Reeves was innocent of the original charge. Marquita testified that her grandmother had forced her to testify against her father at the original trial or face a “whooping.”

Reeves also took the witness stand in his own defense.

After the ruling, which was unanimous, Conner said, “It hurts to see an innocent man have his conviction upheld.”

Conner said Reeves’ got a fair hearing. “I do feel we got in all the evidence we wanted to get in,” Conner said. “We presented everything that Hank had to present. It just wasn’t enough for the judges. I have no idea what swayed or did not sway the judges.”

Conner met with Reeves after the ruling and said he had prepared Reeves for the possibility of losing. “Obviously it hurts and saddens him,” Conner said. “He has some hope for the future.”

Conner plans to file further legal motions to try to exonerate Reeves.

Under Commission rules, the burden of proof shifted to the defense in the hearing, an almost “impossible” burden, Conner said.

Reeves, who is being held without bond in the Georgia case, will be sent back to Georgia, where he has been appointed a public defender.

See also: “Innocence Inquiry Commission could help clear man facing life sentence,” Aug. 27, 2008