What you need to know about Tennessee’s “Missing Witness Rule:”
Tennessee’s law of evidence recognizes the common law rule that a party “may comment upon the failure . . . to call an available and material witness whose testimony would ordinarily be expected to favor” the opposing party. State v. Francis, 669 S.W.2d 85, 88 (Tenn. 1984). The missing witness rule may apply when the evidence shows that a witness who was not called to testify knew about material facts, had a relationship with the party “that would naturally incline the witness to favor the party,” and the witness was available to the process of the court. Id. (quoting Delk v. State, 590 S.W.2d 435, 440 (Tenn. 1979)). In civil trials, this rule applies when the missing witness is also a party—with knowledge of material facts, naturally favorable testimony, and availability to judicial process. See Runnells v. Rogers, 596 S.W.2d 87, 90–91 (Tenn. 1980); W. Union Tel. Co. v. Lamb, 203 S.W. 752, 753 (Tenn. 1918).
The logic of this common law principle stems from the commonsense inference that “[a] party’s intentional efforts to keep evidence from the fact-finder” is reasonably “interpreted as an implied admission of weakness in that party’s case.” Robert H. Stier, Jr., Revisiting the Missing Witness Inference—Quieting the Loud Voice from the Empty Chair, 44 Md. L. Rev. 137, 140 (1985). This “inference, which Wigmore calls ‘one of the simplest in human experience,’” id. (quoting 2 John Wigmore, Evidence in Trials at Common Law § 278, at 133 (J. Chadbourne rev. ed. 1979)), is well-grounded in Tennessee law. Yet we have applied it with due caution for the “several dangers inherent” in its operation, such as adding false weight or significance to testimony that a court has not heard. See Francis, 669 S.W.2d at 89. Thus, we strictly construe the missing witness rule and its elements. Id.