Under the missing witness doctrine, if a person who could have been called to testify is not, the jury may infer that person’s testimony would have been unfavorable to the party who naturally would have called him or her. This doctrine and the associated jury instruction can be highly detrimental to a case, and are therefore to be used sparingly, particularly in the case of a criminal defendant. There are therefore requirements and limitations to when they apply.
The Washington Court of Appeals recently considered the application of the missing witness jury instruction in State v. Houser . A woman called 911 after the defendant knocked on her door at about 9 p.m. with a swollen lip and bloody nose. He told the woman’s husband that his car was in a ditch about a mile away. The defendant later told the state trooper he had some beers that night and drove off the road and struck a pole. After a field sobriety test indicated impairment and he was arrested, the defendant said he was not driving and that his “buddy” had been the driver.
The defendant was charged with felony DUI. The defendant testified he was waiting in his truck outside his friends’ house when he saw an old friend he had not seen in many years. The two decided to get some marijuana, with the friend driving the defendant’s truck because the defendant had been drinking. Afterward, they were on their way to another friend’s house when the accident occurred. The defendant testified his friend was driving at the time of the accident. He said he could not remember exiting the truck. He knew his friend did not stay in the truck, but did not know how he got out or where he went. He had not contacted the friend since the accident, had not tried to reach him, and did not know how to do so.