Though it seems there's ample evidence that Jared Loughner is mentally ill, his lawyers are now looking back through his family tree — all the way back to 1893 — to prove that insanity runs in his family. Last month the attorneys issued and then withdrew subpoenas to the State of Illinois for records on Loughner's maternal relatives. It's unclear if this is preparation for an insanity defense, or part of an effort to prevent him from facing the death penalty.
Loughner, who's accused of murdering six people and attempting to kill 13 others in the Arizona shooting spree, was already found mentally competent to stand trial in May. The New York Times reports that he's currently being forcibly medicated at a psychiatric facility in Springfield, Missouri and a hearing to see if he's improved enough to understand the court proceedings is schedule for September 21.
The investigation into the family's past may have been prompted by Loughner's second cousin Judy Wackt, who says that her mother and an aunt suffered from extreme mental illness. Shortly after the shooting, she told the Washington Post that there was a history of bipolar disorder in the family.
Loughner has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and experts say they believe his mental health was declining for two years prior to the shooting. There's no sign that Loughner's condition is improving, as court records show he's on suicide watch, stays awake for more than two days at a time, and has been pacing in his cell so much that his legs swelled.
Whatever strategy Loughner's lawyers are planning, according to Christopher Slobogin, a professor of law and psychiatry at Vanderbilt Law School, their case will be stronger if they can prove a family history of insanity. He explains,
"Short of a brain scan that shows mental defect, a family history of mental illness is the most persuasive evidence that someone had significant mental problems at the time of the crime."
While an insanity plea is often referred to like it's some kind of "get out of jail free" card, it's not like Loughner will be out walking the streets if his lawyers successfully prove he was insane at the time of the crime. It seems likely that his defense team is just just hoping to avoid the death penalty at this point, but even if they do, he'll spend the rest of his days in a prison or a not-tremendously-pleasant hospital.