Ben Sprecher, who has produced shows and managed theaters in New York since the early 1980s and is best-known for a Broadway musical that collapsed before it could open, was sentenced Thursday afternoon to five years of probation for possessing child pornography. He’ll be required to publicly register as a sex offender in any state in which he resides.
Judge J. Paul Oetken accepted the recommendation of the producer’s court-appointed lawyer, Martin S. Cohen of the Federal Defenders of New York. Citing the seriousness of the crime, the Justice Department had sought a prison term of 78 to 97 months. The U.S. Probation Department recommended a year and a day of incarceration.
“I own the consequences of what I did,” Sprecher said while sobbing in an emotional statement to the court before Oetken announced the sentence in lower Manhattan. “No matter what your judgment is, I own it.”
The 66-year-old producer was arrested in August 2019 at his Harlem home and pleaded guilty a year later to downloading and possessing photographs and videos containing child pornography. A hard drive recovered from Sprecher’s home contained more than 5,000 thumbnail images and 130 videos of child pornography, the Justice Department said in a court filing. Some of the photos and videos depicted children under 12 years old, and some depicted the sexual abuse of infants and toddlers, the Justice Department said.
Sprecher’s arrest was “directly related” to mental health issues, Cohen said, without elaborating, adding that the producer has “thrown himself completely into treatment.”
“He has spent this past 19 months working through what led to this offense,” Cohen said. “The sentence that we’re requesting will allow Mr. Sprecher to continue those treatments uninterrupted.”
Cohen cited the dangers of prison life while Covid-19 rages, even for someone who’s vaccinated. “The conditions of confinement during the pandemic are incredibly horrific and brutal, punitive,” he said while arguing for probation. “There is no ability for people incarcerated to follow any of the strictures of the CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention]. Any perceived societal benefit from imposing a brief sentence of incarceration in our view is vastly overweighed by the nature of incarceration now.”
The prosecutor in the case, Samuel Philip Rothschild, countered that probation wasn’t “sufficiently punitive” or an adequate deterrence given the crime. In a filing in the case, the Justice Department cited a 2013 ruling that a child pornography victim “suffers continuing and grievous harm as a result of her knowledge that a large, indeterminate number of individuals have viewed and will in the future view images of the sexual abuse she endured.”
Oetken said that Sprecher committed a serious crime — “horrible stuff” — but the judge was influenced by Sprecher’s remorse, his need for continued treatment, a lack of a prior criminal record and that he raised a family. (He has two children who are young adults.) Letters from Sprecher, his doctor and friends cited by the judge weren’t made public in court files.
The letters, the judge noted, referenced Sprecher’s “kindness,” a positive impact on other people in his community and “difficult experiences in his childhood.”
“A sentence of probation does constitute punishment,” Judge Oetken said. “I don’t agree with the idea that in every single case incarceration is necessary,” particularly given the stigma of registering as a sex offender.
As part of his sentence, Sprecher must pay a $5,000 fine. On the request of his lawyer, he’s permitted to pay it in monthly installments.
Sprecher has produced on and off-Broadway and run several off-Broadway theaters, including the Promenade on the Upper West Side and the Variety Arts in Union Square, both of which have since closed. He’s best-known for a bizarre misadventure that spawned years of litigation, a planned Broadway musical adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel Rebecca. He and a partner struggled to complete the $12 million minimum capitalization, and for months were strung along by a Long Island stock broker who purported to have raised more than a third of the money.
The overseas investors identified by the well-compensated broker turned out to be fictional, and the show was cancelled before its first rehearsal, at a loss of millions.
After the 2012 collapse of Rebecca, which would’ve been Sprecher’s debut as a lead producer of a Broadway musical, he spent six years in court trying to hold his former press agent accountable for the calamity. The publicist, Marc Thibodeau, had surreptitiously warned a real-life investor against getting involved, saying he was trying to protect an innocent man from losing money. In 2017, a jury found that Thibodeau wrongfully interfered with the production’s contract with the investor but assessed just $90,000 in damages. (Producers had sought more than $10 million in damages.)
Judge Oetken alluded to the Rebecca affair when he said that Sprecher “obviously went through a very traumatic professional experience that led to a spiral of depression and compulsive self-destructive behavior.”