John A. Shorter Jr., a District defense lawyer whose clients have figured in some of the city's most publicized cases in recent years, was indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury on charges of tax evasion and failure to pay $287,600 in taxes, penalties and interest since 1972.

The seven-count indictment alleged that Shorter, 57, hid the size and location of his financial assets and gave false statements to agents of the Internal Revenue Service in the course of the investigation.

"We're preparing to fight," said Shorter's attorney, Plato Cacheris. Shorter was unavailable for comment. Cacheris said Shorter will appear soon before U.S. District Judge Harold Greene for formal presentation of the charges.

U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova said the charges are the latest in a series of tax difficulties for Shorter, dating to 1968 and including a plea of no contest in 1974 in federal court in Baltimore to one count of failing to file a tax return for 1969.

Shorter was placed on probation for five years and fined $2,000 and later suspended for six months from practicing law by the D.C. bar as a result of the Baltimore case, diGenova said.

If convicted on all counts, Shorter could get a maximum 11 years in prison and $190,000 in fines.

Government lawyers earlier filed two lawsuits in U.S. District Court here in an attempt to recover about $12,000 from Shorter in allegedly unpaid taxes for 1976 and 1977. Those cases are pending.

Shorter was in the news most recently in August when he represented Karen K. Johnson, a D.C. government employe who was jailed for contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating drug use by city workers and others.

That case attracted notoriety after sources said that Johnson had told a government informant, in a secretly taped conversation, that she had sold cocaine to Mayor Marion Barry on several occasions. Barry has acknowledged that he knew Johnson but has said he did not purchase drugs from her.

Cacheris said he did not know whether Shorter continues to represent Johnson, who is serving up to 18 months in D.C. Jail for contempt.

In 1979, Shorter successfully defended former D.C. Department of Human Resources Director Joseph P. Yeldell against bribery and conspiracy charges involving the $5.6 million lease of a building owned by Washington developer Dominic F. Antonelli Jr.

The following year, Shorter represented a senior official of the Church of Scientology who was charged with burglary of an IRS office here. The case was part of a wider effort by the government to prosecute church officials charged with trying to defeat an IRS tax investigation through spying, bugging and break-ins.

Yesterday's indictment charged that the largest single amount of federal income tax allegedly unpaid by Shorter -- $35,639 -- was for 1980, when Shorter participated in the Scientology defense.

Two years ago, Shorter defended prominent Washington attorney William A. Borders Jr. against charges Borders conspired to act as a conduit for a $150,000 bribe to U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings of Florida. Borders was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison and a $35,000 fine.

In recent weeks, government lawyers here have been negotiating with Shorter for the return of $25,000 paid to Borders by an undercover FBI agent as a downpayment on the alleged bribe to Hastings. Shorter is scheduled to appear this morning for a hearing on the matter.

Shorter also was charged yesterday with six misdemeanor counts of failing to pay income taxes from 1978 through 1983.

According to the U.S. Attorney's office, the government won a civil judgment against Shorter in 1968 for $9,290 in unpaid taxes for 1960 through 1963. In 1977, prosecutors said, Shorter also pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court to failure to pay District taxes for 1968 and 1970. He was sentenced to one year's probation and a $1,000 fine. In exchange for Shorter's plea, charges of failure to pay D.C. taxes for 1969 and 1971-75 were dropped.