Charles Fickert, the son of a farmer, was born in 1873. He attended Stanford University where he studied for a law degree. A talented sportsman, Fickert was the star of the university football team.
In 1898 Fickert entered the law office of W. B. Kollmyer and Edward R. Taylor. However, two years later he returned to Stanford to become assistant varsity football coach under Fielding H. Yost. In 1901 Fickert replaced Yost as head coach. The following year, after a series of bad results Fickert resigned and resumed his career as a lawyer.
In March 1904 Fickert became Assistant United States District Attorney in San Francisco. The following year he began working as a freelance attorney.
Fickert, a member of the Republican Party, ran for the post of San Francisco's District Attorney in 1909. He fought a dirty campaign and the Governor of California, Hiram Johnson, stated: "Fickert has run riot with lies. I think he's gone stark, staring mad." Despite this Fickert defeated Francis Heney by 36,192 to 26,075.
On 22nd July, 1916, employers in San Francisco organized a march through the streets in favour of an improvement in national defence. Critics of the march, such as William Jennings Bryan, claimed that the Preparedness March was being organized by financiers and factory owners who would benefit from increased spending on munitions.
During the march a bomb went off in Steuart Street killing six people (four more died later). Two witnesses described two dark-skinned men, probably Mexicans, carrying a heavy suitcase near to where the bomb exploded.
The Chamber of Commerce immediately offered a reward of $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the dynamiters. Other organizations and individuals added to this sum and the reward soon reached $17,000. Offering such a large reward was condemned by the editor of the New York Times claiming it was a "sweepstake for perjurers".
On the evening of the bombing Martin Swanson went to see Fickert. Swanson told Fickert that despite the claims that it was the work of Mexicans, he was convinced that Tom Mooney and Warren Billings were responsible for the explosion. The next day Swanson resigned from the Public Utilities Protective Bureau and began working for the District Attorney's office. On 26th July 1916, Fickert ordered the arrest of Mooney, his wife Rena Mooney, Warren Billings, Israel Weinberg and Edward Nolan.
None of the witnesses of the bombing identified the defendants in the lineup. The prosecution case was instead based on the testimony of two men, an unemployed waiter, John McDonald and Frank Oxman, a cattleman from Oregon. They claimed that they saw Warren Billings plant the bomb at 1.50 p.m. Oxman saw Tom Mooney and his wife talking with Billings a few minutes later. However, at the trial, a photograph showed that the couple were over a mile from the scene. A clock in the photograph clearly read 1.58 p.m. The heavy traffic at the time meant that it was impossible for Mooney and his wife to have been at the scene of the bombing at 1.50 p.m. Despite this, Mooney was sentenced to death and Billings to life-imprisonment. Rena Mooney and Israel Weinberg were found not guilty and Edward Nolan was never brought to trial.
Mooney's defence team complained about the method of selecting his jury. Bourke Cockran pointed out that in San Francisco "each Superior Court Judge places in the box from which the trial jurors are drawn the names of such persons as he may think proper. In theory he is supposed to choose persons peculiarly well qualified to decide issues of fact. In actual practice he places in the box the names of men who ask to be selected. The practical result is that a jury panel is a collection of the lame, the halt, the blind, and the incapable, with a few exceptions, and these are well known to the District Attorney who is thus enabled to pick a jury of his own choice."
Fickert ran for re-election as District Attorney in 1919. Discredited by the publication of the Densmore Report he was defeated by Judge Matthew Brady (47,000 votes to 40,000). Four years later he tried again but this time he was overwhelmed 71,000 to 27,000.
Fickert moved to Los Angeles where he established himself as a lawyer. In later life he became an alcoholic and was divorced by his wife for intemperance and habitual gambling.
Charles Fickert died of pneumonia in 1937.