Time to Let it Go; The Court Has Ruled
Verdict in Sam Wesley Trial Must Not be Allowed to Split Island Community

March 13th, 2014
by Robert Armstrong

The evidence has been weighed, the witnesses have been heard, and the court has issued its verdict: Sam Wesley is guilty of attempted murder for shooting Australian dive instructor Joe O’Donnell August 19, 2011 (see related article). Barring a successful appeal, he will spend at least 13 years in prison.

The verdict was greeted with elation by Roatan’s expatriate residents and their sympathizers abroad, many of whom saw it as a travesty of justice that Wesley was permitted to remain at large – under house arrest – two and a half years after shooting an unarmed man in the back. Many saw it as an important test of whether a foreigner could receive justice on Roatan, or whether Honduran courts could provide justice at all.

At the same time, some islanders  rejected the verdict, implying monied foreigners inappropriately swayed the court. “Every story has two sides,” read one Facebook post.

What should not be lost in the emotions of the moment is that this incident was a tragedy for both parties. But the worst tragedy of all would be to allow it to divide the island into camps, each viewing it through a prejudicial lens, or if it were to lead to lingering bitterness and recriminations.

O’Donnell, after multiple surgeries and physical therapy, has regained the use of his limbs. But he will likely live the rest of his life with pain and disabilities. The “dream” he once lived on Roatan is gone forever. Wesley, who is 64 and as far as we know had no previous brushes with the law, will likely spend most of the rest of his life behind bars. Thus two lives have been shattered. And why? Apparently a grudge over parking a bicycle.

Regardless of whose version you believe about what happened that July afternoon in front of Crystal Beach Cabins to precipitate an altercation between O’Donnell and Wesley’s wife, Rosita, things should never have been allowed to escalate to the point that they did. It may have been a simple case of inter-cultural miscommunication or somebody having a bad day. O’Donnell said he received repeated phone calls from the Wesleys over the following weeks, which he ignored. “At that point I probably should have left the island,” he said in retrospect. Or maybe he should have taken the calls?

West End is a small and tightly knit community. Where were the cooler heads and village elders who could have stepped in to calm this situation? O’Donnell said he worked at a dive shop owned by Wesley’s relatives. Did anybody talk to anybody? Did anyone consider brokering an exchange of apologies? Could a little bit of communication have prevented this tragedy? We will never know.

Sympathizers for the victim and defendant in the Sam Wesley trial faced off outside the courthouse in Coxen Hole March 4.

Sympathizers for the victim and defendant in the Sam Wesley trial faced off outside the courthouse in Coxen Hole March 4.

What Wesley did was wrong, plain and simple. But it is a mistake to see him, as some seem to, as the embodiment of the criminal element that threatens the peace of the island. He is neither a career criminal nor a demon. He is a man who allowed his anger, his sense of honor and his desire to avenge a perceived insult to his wife to drive him to do something stupid and barbaric. Up to the point that he pulled the trigger on Joe O’Donnell, he might even have been considered a role model – a self-made man who helped pioneer dive tourism in West End and prospered from the community’s growth and development over the last four decades, which was driven by foreign tourism and foreign investment.

It is therefore ironic that so many of his supporters who demonstrated in front of the courthouse March 4 carried placards deriding Roatan’s expatriate residents as tax cheats, losers, crackheads, illegal immigrants and arrogant lawbreakers stealing jobs from native Hondurans, none of which had anything to do with the question before the court, which was whether Wesley had acted in legitimate self-defense as he claimed or stalked and shot a defenseless man in the back with intent to kill as argued by the state.

Although the demonstration appeared to have been orchestrated by Wesley’s family and few of those demonstrating were from West End, it was nonetheless distressing. That a rival demonstration seeking “Justice for Joe” was composed entirely of white expatriates was no less so. The demonstrations were peaceful, fortunately. But the racial barbs being exchanged were more than discomfiting. “You think we’re still your slaves,” said Wesley’s son to O’Donnell’s supporters.

The Spanish sign reads:  "Elected officials, apply the Honduran law to the evil and abusive foreigners. No more corruption in the prosecutor's office with the foreigners in West End who are working without legal permission to give tips in bars and other places."

The Spanish sign reads: “Elected officials, apply the Honduran law to the evil and abusive foreigners. No more corruption in the prosecutor’s office with the foreigners in West End who are working without legal permission to give tips in bars and other places.”

We must not allow the racially tinged media-circus trials that have unfortunately become so commonplace in the United States to infect Roatan. In court, what should matter is not the nationalities of the defendant and the accuser but the facts. The court in this case ruled that the facts, as presented at trial, were “unequivocal.” It’s time that everyone accept that verdict and move on, and neither gloat nor stew or obsess about it any longer.

The same day Sam Wesley was tried, an island man was shot in the back in Sandy Bay. A young woman lay in hospital on the mainland after being abducted from her home near Second Bight, raped and shot multiple times. There are indications both may have been crimes of passion. We must not delude ourselves that crime and justice on the Bay Islands began or ended when Sam Wesley shot Joe O’Donnell or that violence here has any particular racial or national face.

We sat through the Sam Wesley trial for two days, and it appeared to us that justice in this case was blind. People are free to disagree with the verdict, and Wesley has the right to appeal. But let’s let go of the hate. “Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord.”

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