Forensic Odontologist Dr. Holland Maness is the New Administrative Director of the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center

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Dr. Holland Maness

Holland Maness, DMD, hit the ground running as the new administrative director of the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center (WTRFC). Her first day was Nov. 2, 2015, and she faced a capital budget deadline, plus a deadline for the center’s annual validation of accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Both deadlines were met, and the WTRFC this month received notice of continued full accreditation from the national association, signifying it meets the highest quality of death investigation standards.

Dr. Maness is a forensic odontologist, meaning she specializes in forensic dentistry, and an associate professor of orthodontics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), which manages the WTRFC. She was named administrative director by Ken Brown, JD, MPA, PhD, FACHE, executive vice chancellor and chief operations officer at UTHSC. The WTRFC, located at 637 Poplar Avenue, includes the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“I’ve always been interested in forensic medicine,” Dr. Maness said. It’s an interest she credits to growing up watching the TV show “Quincy, M.E.,” a forerunner of such shows as “CSI.” A typical day at the WTRFC, however, is not that much like “CSI,” she said. Discoveries are rarely as instantaneous as they are depicted on television.

“The legal question I’m most often called in about is identifying people by using dental records,” she said. “It’s every bit as scientific as fingerprints or DNA.”

Forensic dentistry is defined as the application of dental knowledge to the justice system. Forensic odontologists assist police agencies in identifying human remains. They may also be asked to help determine age, race, occupation, previous dental history and the social and economic status of people who have not been identified. The work often involves providing subsequent expert medical testimony in judicial proceedings.

Forensic odontologists also investigate bite marks, she said. These may be left on a victim by an attacker, on a perpetrator by the victim of an attack, or even on an object found at a crime scene.

The road to becoming a forensic odontologist was a long one, though perhaps it was foreshadowed by her childhood love for walking on South Carolina’s Edisto Beach collecting shark teeth.

Dr. Maness didn’t start out to be a dentist. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the College of Charleston. This served her well in managing her own dental practice, and eventually in her administrative role at the WTRFC, she said.

She earned her Doctor of Dental Medicine degree from the Medical College of Georgia  in 2005, followed by her certificate in orthodontics, and went into private practice in Martinez, Georgia.

To become a forensic odontologist; however, required additional experience that could be obtained only by assisting on cases.

“I had to seek them out,” Dr. Maness said.

“There actually are very few forensic dentistry jobs,” she explained. “Most forensic odontologists have a regular career and are doing forensic dentistry on the side, usually on a pro bono basis, simply because they have a passion for it.”

As cases arose for which a forensic odontologist was needed, Dr. Maness would rearrange her schedule and travel to the site to gain the experience she needed. The process took years.

Once the casework requirements were completed, she passed the American Board of Forensic Odontology examination in 2013, making her one of approximately 90 board certified forensic dentists in the country.

Teeth photo
Forensic odontologists apply their knowledge of dentistry to solving mysteries.

Dr. Maness sees a unifying element in forensic dentistry and orthodontics. Both are forms of problem solving. Orthodontists must come up with and implement a plan for solving dental problems. Forensic odontologists solve mysteries.

When Dr. Maness came to Memphis in 2013 to join the College of Dentistry’s Department of Orthodontics, UTHSC did not have the contract to manage the WTRFC. Soon after she became an associate professor; however, Dr. Brown asked her to help put together the RFP (request for proposal) for the contract.

UTHSC was awarded the contract beginning July 1, 2014. It was a victory for the university, and for Dr. Maness as well. She could do what she loved – forensic dentistry – at least some of the time. She spent about 80 percent of her time teaching orthodontics, which she enjoyed, and about 20 percent in forensic dentistry, which made her even happier.

When Dr. Brown named her administrative director, reversing those percentages, Dr. Maness felt fate had truly smiled upon her. In her role as administrative director, she supervises the administrative staff and the staff of death investigators led by the chief investigator. In addition, she works closely with Karen Chancellor, MD, chief medical examiner for Shelby County and a professor of pathology at UTHSC, regarding all operations of the center.

“We were very fortunate when we were awarded the contract to have the benefit of Dr. Charles Handorf to assist us in the management of the WTRFC,” Dr. Brown said. “When Dr. Handorf announced his retirement, there was a unanimous consensus among our entire team that Dr. Maness was the clear choice for this role. She brings not only passion for forensic science, but the experience to lead a very complex team of forensic pathologists, autopsy technicians and death investigators.”

Dr. Maness said she has plans to continue expansion of programs at the WTRFC. “We have some very good equipment, but we’d like to keep moving forward, to become a true center of excellence.” These plans also include expanded educational opportunities.

More on the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center

The West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center oversees medico-legal death investigation services for the 20 counties west of the Tennessee River that send their autopsies to the center. It is charged with applying uniform standards of investigation for all deaths, regardless of the county of origin, and maintaining investigative integrity, beginning with the scene.

Death investigation is county driven, Dr. Maness said, as opposed to state driven. She said UTHSC won the bid for the counties in West Tennessee because of its educational component and the ability to develop forensic fellowships. The management of WTRFC meshes well with UTHSC’s missions of education, research, clinical care and public service.

The Tennessee Code Annotated is specific as to which deaths must be investigated, Dr. Maness said. They include death from violence or trauma, sudden death when the person was in apparent health, sudden unexpected death of infants and children, death of prisoners or persons in state custody, death on the job, death believed to represent a threat to public health, death where neglect or abuse are suspected, death where the identity of the person is unknown, and any other death of a suspicious, unusual or unnatural manner.