Should we Rely on Eyewitness Testimony for Criminal Prosecution?

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of knowledge, and can best be summarized in a simple question, “How can I truly know that I know something?” While this question is crucial to critical thinking, it is of particular importance in criminal cases, in which eyewitness testimony can be a deciding factor in a conviction. Over the past decade, new methods of scientific analysis have exonerated many people who were falsely imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, often on the basis of eyewitness testimony. This raises the question: in light of advancing DNA and forensic testing capabilities, should the criminal justice system continue to rely on the memories of witnesses to convict people of crimes?


Keith Lehrer, a contemporary philosopher who specializes in epistemology, elaborates on what it means to “know” something in his 1990 book Theory of Knowledge. He provides an example of a man looking into a field, seeing a sheep, and saying that he knows he sees a sheep. Since the animal is not far away, and the man knows what a sheep looks like, most people would not question this statement, and believe that this man is completely justified in believing that he sees a sheep. However, Lehrer, taking an epistemologist’s viewpoint, raises the supposition: “Now imagine that the object he takes to be a sheep is not a sheep but a dog. Thus, he does not know that he sees a sheep.”1

In some cases, the matter is not as simple as seeing a sheep versus seeing a dog. Joseph Lamont Abbitt, of Winston-Salem, NC, spent fourteen years in prison because of a much more critical form of misidentification. In June 1995, he was convicted of the 1991 rape of two young girls at knifepoint; this conviction was based almost entirely on the eyewitness testimony of the girls, who testified that they recognized Abbitt, a former neighbor, as the man who broke into their house and attacked them. Despite some contrary DNA evidence and his employer’s testimony that Abbitt was at work at the time of the crime, Abbitt was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 110 years for the crime.


In 2005, the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence accepted his plea for assistance and began to collect evidence which could be scientifically tested to prove his innocence. Even though much of the original evidence had been destroyed in the fourteen years since the crime, the organization was able to obtain one of the rape kits collected from the victims. DNA testing using new technological methods proved Abbitt’s innocence, and he was officially exonerated in September of 2009, after serving fourteen years in prison.2

Sadly, Abbitt’s case is neither unique nor uncommon. According to the Huffington Post, a “shocking number” of people convicted in U.S. courts are actually innocent. They estimate, based on information gathered from two university databases, that more than 2,000 people have been wrongly convicted, served a substantial prison sentence, and then exonerated.3 The facts on eyewitness testimony are sobering: nearly four out of five false convictions in sexual assault cases are based on mistaken eyewitness identification. One must wonder why, in an age of advanced technology, so much importance is placed on eyewitness testimony when so much physical evidence can be obtained and scientifically analyzed in these violent crime cases. It seems that neither the victims nor the prosecutors in these cases think critically and question how they know, without a doubt, that the accused is definitely the criminal.

This issue is so concerning, it is beginning to receive recognition even beyond the scope of scholarly articles and legal journals. In 2011, the National Geographic Channel aired a three-part series called Test Your Brain, and the first episode, titled “Pay Attention”, presented a mock crime scene, in which multiple eyewitnesses to a staged daylight mugging in New York City were brought into a mock courtroom and asked to give their accounts of the crime and describe the witness.4 Alarmingly, none of the ten witnesses were able to accurately describe either the crime or the perpetrator. The show’s experts explain that this is because the human brain is hard-wired to “connect the dots”, so to speak; when there are details missing in a person’s memories, their brain invents details to bridge the gap and finish the story.

Given all the evidence, the criminal justice system should reduce its reliance on eyewitness testimony, or at the very least, view it with a high degree of scrutiny. With all the scientific knowledge and ample technology available, there is simply no reason to use a person’s memories and perception, which can be highly subjective, to determine a matter of such high importance as a person’s guilt of a serious crime. After all, as Herbert Feigl, former head of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, once wrote, “….science acquires a reach far beyond the limits of our unaided senses”.5 If a person is to serve a life sentence for a crime, we have an ethical and moral duty to examine all evidence, and be able to say, without a shadow of a doubt, that we have the knowledge that this person is actually guilty of committing a serious crime.

Kelly Dillon

1.  Keith Lehrer. The Analysis of Knowledge. Second edition. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 19.

2. The National Registry of Exonerations: University of Michigan Law School and The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. Joseph Lamont Abbitt case detail, http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3807. Website.

3. Pete Yost. Huffington Post: Criminal Exonerations: 2,000 Convicted Then Exonerated In U.S. Over Last 23 Years, Study Says. May 21, 2012. Periodical Website.

4. “Pay Attention!” Test Your Brain. National Geographic Channel. April 17, 2011. Television.

5. Alburey Castell, Donald M. Borchert, and Arthur Zucker. Introduction to Modern Philosophy: Examining The Human Condition. 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001), 506.

  1. Jaclyn Dillon says:

    That was such an interesting summary on how certain cases could have had a different outcome if the peopl prosecuting the case,.didn’t just solely rely on”eyewitness testimonies”!!…rather than on what is obviously proven not to work out as well as if thsg had gathered sufficient real evidence from crime scene!!!,…One most of the victims are in state of shock still and sometimes influenced by what thsir “hearing about facts of case at hand”!!…2..the person found wrongly accused name is tarnished..!!,..and they went through all that hell because they didn’t use actual hardcore evidence”or it happens to get “lost along way!”…Had/havs they gather strong dna..more evidence at crime scene etc…it could have saved alot of people(including victims and alleged criminals),alot of pain a d heartache!!!!…,let alone would have been able to catch the real criminal right away!!,b4ore they had/have chance to commit another horrific crime again!!!,….Now in todays day and age use the dna the evidence at crime scenes!!,
    We’ve all come so far in sciencs letsput it to great use!!!!
    …………very well written/researched Kelly Dillon

    • dan R. says:

      This article is very believable. I agree on how people should not just take the eyewitness word. Like the article said “He provides an example of a man looking into a field, seeing a sheep, and saying that he knows he sees a sheep”. The man thought he saw a sheep so he was assuming it was a sheep, But in the epistemologist’s viewpoint they say “Now imagine that the object he takes to be a sheep is not a sheep but a dog. Thus, he does not know that he sees a sheep.” This makes two view points now because why would you just listen to the “eye witness” he they don’t actually what the think they see. People’s brains “connect the dots” and fill in the blanks to what they believe they saw. This then raises the fact to that criminals in fact have not been convicted fairly if they court takes the word of the “eye witness”. Now with science we get to use the dna at the crime scene to help solve the case. The technology has came so far to where we should start using more then just a voice of a “eye witness”.

  2. Nicole G. says:

    In my high school law class, we learned a lot about this topic and how people are wrongly convicted through eyewitness testimony often. I personally believe that the only way a jury should decide if a person is guilty is through concrete evidence such as DNA.

  3. Rebecca V says:

    This was a very interesting blog entry because it caused the reader to put themselves in the shoes of the accused. I believe that the jury should take into consideration the fact brought up about how the human brain feels the need to “connect the dots” as well as consider the hard DNA proof.

  4. Thomas Mathews says:

    I agree that a testimony is not enough to convict someone, information can easily become distorted and biased by the beholder. An eye witness may also change what they saw in order to please a certain party, which puts the other at a disadvantage. The technology we have today is advanced enough to provide solid evidence as to whether the person accused committed the crime or not, which is important because the wrong person should not go to prison for something they did not do.

  5. Carmella Gloria says:

    This topic not only catches my attention but gets my mind thinking about the innocent people who do get wrongly convicted for a crime they did not commit and will have to serve their sentence. For this particular example with Joseph Lamont Abbitt, back in 1995 they did not have the advanced equipment we have today, therefore Mr. Abbitt’s innocence could not be accurately (100%) proven. I would have thought that by him having an alibi would have helped, but apparently that wasn’t enough to prove Mr. Abbitt’s innocence. Also generally speaking, eyewitnesses can be lying as well. Us human beings, do make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes can be life changing. Sadly for Mr. Abbitt this mistake took 14 years of his life that he can never get back.

  6. Anthony says:

    My thoughts on the article are that I agree with the author 100%. How can anyone know what someone really saw and if what they saw is detailed enough for court. I am a full believer in that evidence never lies, by evidence I mean scientific and any evidence that was obtained using technologically advanced methods. While I think eyewitness accounts do help sometimes in cases there a lot of times where it does not. The author makes many very good and valid points and in my opinion he is completely right.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I really liked this article. I think it proves a very good solid point. It shows how the criminal justice system could put a person in jail for the rest of their life just based off of what one other person saw. I agree that now a days in our advanced society , we should be able to come up biological evidence that can put the right person in jail. I really enjoyed reading this article and liked your perspective on it!

  8. Brianna Mobley says:

    This article makes a very good point in criticizing judicial system. I have heard of many stories where someone is wrongly convicted due to false eyewitness testimony.The article looks into the way people are convicted and questions what should truly be used in order to convict someone. Nowadays, there seems to be enough intelligence and technology to convict people without the need of eyewitness testimony. I definitely believe that eyewitness testimony should not be a main technique but instead, should be something that is weighed in when all else fails.

  9. Mindy Lugo says:

    In certain situations there is no telling who is right or wrong and you need an eye witness to clarify what happened. Yes, sometimes people may not be too sure what they are seeing but in a situation where no one is telling the truth it is the only option. Instead of taking a side you must go to a third party and get their opinion, as long as the eyewitness is random and not in favor of either side.

  10. Daniela Ocampo says:

    I think eye witness testimonies should be used but only if backed up with concrete evidence such as DNA or other evidence.

  11. Brian Strohmeyer says:

    I believe that eyewitness testimony should be still used but it shouldn’t weigh as much as tangible evidence would. If eyewitness testimony was the only evidence used in court, then an innocent person might be sentenced to jail just because someone “may have seen something”.

  12. Quincey Schenck says:

    I feel that this article is an important topic and is very relevant. Eye witness testimony shouldn’t be relied as only the evidence. I thought it really wasn’t anymore for a lot of cases for this exact reason. I think that if the case has very little evidence the prosecutors should wait longer to prosecute the accused. It is not fair to have innocent men sit in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

  13. corey smith says:

    This article brings up a good point. We live in such a technological world, DNA testing is almost always accurate. Although sometimes is does take time, the help of eye-witnesses can be a necessity. When it comes to eye-witnesses information it can often become distorted and confused. In cases, that last over long periods of time, it is very common for information to be lost, forgotten, or confusing.

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