A “dignified end of life” is in store for California’s 650-plus condemned, according to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mouthpiece. That’s a relief. I thought they were going to be killed.

The new, secretly-arrived-at protocol for use in the new, secretly built death chamber was supposed to bring California’s killing process out of the darkness — one observer said he needed a flashlight to make notes — and out of the fumbling hands of the Keystone Kop Killing team, which would, presumably, no longer be able to walk off with the unused and unaccounted-for drugs.

So, E for effort? Oh, maybe H for hapless, or L for late. Three years ago Gov. Schwarzenegger wrote to me, saying he understood “that in some state [sic], officials have been concerned that abuse and incompetence worked to undermine the fair and impartial application of the law … ,” but he was sure “that California’s administration of the death penalty is free from the kind of systemic defects that have called its accuracy into question in other states.” What a kidder!

Who’da thought the Guv had such a sense of gallows humor?

Missing the joke, I figured it was a lack of experience on Schwarzenegger’s part. How could you blame the guy for not seeing how messed up our state’s homicide delivery system was? The closest he’d come to killing was in the movies, and, damn, was he good at that! But he was new at this job, so should I expect him to understand that he’s actually responsible for taking actual human lives? What’s the matter with me?

Thinking about it, I now get how clever he was. Saying that officials in some other state(s) worry that “abuse and incompetence … undermine the fair and impartial application of the law,” he was being sly. He clearly knew about the 200 men who had been wrongly convicted by California’s “free from … systemic defects” system, but, wink-wink, they were freed. Get it? The system works! Sure, there’s ridicule, humiliation, stigmatization and job loss, but they’re out, so get over it.

I just missed the funny part.

So — follow me now — our killing machine is “free from the kind of systemic defects that have called its accuracy into question in other states.” “Free from” — get it? He was telling me not to worry. Stupid me, I thought he was cheerleading, as you’d expect of a new governor. Here he was at the beginning of a steep, on-the-job learning curve; you can’t expect him to know this stuff for real. I mean he’d just gone from being a cigar-chomping, Hummer-driving movie star to … well, to a cigar-chomping, Hummer-driving governor. But the clue? This is a guy born in a country that doesn’t even have a death penalty at all! He’s just waaay too subtle for me.

So is my face red, or what? He absolutely had me. I thought he was a grinning cipher, an ambitious egomaniac without a clue, elected on the strength of celebrity, apologizing for a system we all knew was shaming us, and here he was, stringing me along, secretly planning to bring California into the 21st century!

What a guy!

So as you can imagine, I really felt for him when Judge Jeremy Fogel didn’t get the joke either. I mean, he blasted Schwarzenegger’s killing process as a “deeply disturbing” mess and said they had to clean it up or close it down. Little did he know!

In any other situation, I’d have been cheering Judge Fogel for shutting down the murder machine. It would have been wonderful to hear him condemn the disorganization, the lack of “reliability and transparency,” the “actions and failures to act” that “have resulted in an undue and unnecessary risk of an Eighth Amendment violation” that would be “intolerable under the Constitution.” I mean, God bless him!

Unfortunately though, like me, he’s wasting his breath. He didn’t get the joke. The killing’s over! They said it. Those on death row can look forward to “a dignified end of life.”

What else could they mean?

Mike Farrell, author of the recently released book “Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist,” is president of the board of Death Penalty Focus.

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