D.C. police Lt. Larry Carlson Hackett, believed to be the highest-ranking officer to face criminal charges in the District, told a jury in his first-degree murder trial Thursday and yesterday that he shot in self-defense.

It was Hackett's first public explanation of a struggle in March 1989 that left Stanley McCray, a 43-year-old District man, dead on the pavement outside Lefty's Cocktail Lounge in the Brookland section of Northeast Washington.

Hackett, whose version of the incident was disputed by several eyewitnesses, said on the witness stand that he was leaving the bar just after midnight when he heard McCray "giving a tongue-lashing" to a woman standing nearby.

"I said, 'Brother, why don't you cut the lady a break?' " Hackett testified.

McCray, Hackett testified, "stepped right up to me," smelling strongly of alcohol, and began hurling obscenities. Hackett said a friend of McCray's, Bennie Sullivan, then "punched me across my head," and the two men began to beat him.

"It was just a flurry of blows, crushing," Hackett testified. "I have never been hit that hard in my life . . . . I was starting to pass out. The blows were just devastating."

As he struggled to rise, Hackett testified, he heard somebody shout, "He's got a gun," followed by, "Shoot the {expletive}."

"When I looked up," he said, "here comes this dark figure . . . coming over me. I hold my hand up. I pulled the trigger, and then I fell."

Hackett's attorney, Leroy Nesbitt, asked, "Did you fire directly {at McCray}?" Hackett replied, "Yes."

"Why did you do that?" Nesbitt asked. "To save my life," Hackett answered.

McCray, according to the D.C. medical examiner, died of a single shot to the chest. He was unarmed. A witness for the defense said the dead man had a blood alcohol level of 0.18 percent, the equivalent in a man his size of nine drinks of 80 proof alcohol.

Hackett, a 15-year veteran of the department, was assigned to the 4th Police District at the time of the incident. A police spokesman said he believes Hackett is the highest-ranking officer ever charged with a crime in the District and the first charged with first-degree murder. He has been suspended without pay from the department. Lefty's is in the 5th Police District.

Prosecution witnesses, including two police officers, differed with the defendant in their accounts of the incident. They testified that Hackett, after being asked to leave the bar because he was being abusive, stood outside the door and kept other people from entering. Police officers who had been called to investigate the shooting also testified yesterday that Hackett never told them anyone other than McCray jumped him.

The witnesses said that Hackett's fight with McCray began when McCray tried to enter the bar.

Carol Boozer, a federal program analyst, testified that a bystander pulled the two apart and McCray "stepped back from Mr. Hackett a good six feet."

Hackett, who was off duty, "reached behind his jacket and pulled out a gun," Boozer said. McCray's hands were empty and away from his body at the time, she said. Hackett "took about two steps and fired the gun . . . . I crossed the street, looked back and saw {Hackett} standing over the victim," the woman testified.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. argued earlier this week that the shooting was premeditated. "The defendant was coolly, coldly aware of everything he was doing," Hochul said.

Nesbitt, Hackett's attorney, argued yesterday that his client had no time to think about killing McCray. Nesbitt asked Superior Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. to consider reducing the charge to manslaughter or second-degree murder, but Kennedy said such a decision should come from the jury. Hackett rejected a government offer late last year that would have allowed him to plead guilty to second-degree murder.

In cross-examination, Hochul emphasized the defendant's opportunity to consider his choice before firing. "You consciously made the decision to pull the trigger, didn't you?" he asked.

"I consciously made the decision to stop this aggression," Hackett replied.

Closing arguments were scheduled for Monday.