A Baton Rouge man accused of instigating a confrontation that immediately preceded the 2016 shooting death of two 19-year-old Southern University students near LSU was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison by a judge who said the man might as well have pulled the fatal trigger.

The gun Brandon Henderson fired into the air that April night outside The Cottages apartment complex did not kill innocent bystanders Lashuntae Benton and Annette January, but state District Judge Beau Higginbotham did not mince words when he said the victims' blood is nevertheless on Henderson's hands.

"You did cause their deaths, whether you want to believe it or not," the judge said. "Had you not pulled that gun out, we can definitely say Miss Benton and Miss January would be alive."

Henderson, 26, pleaded guilty in December to aggravated assault with a firearm and faced up to 10 years in prison.

Police have alleged that Benton, a sophomore from Lake Charles, and January, a freshman from Gary, Indiana, were killed when Ernest Felton, 24, of Baton Rouge, returned fire at Henderson, who was shot twice.

Felton and Henderson were booked on second-degree murder counts and other charges, but Felton walked free in September 2016 when an East Baton Rouge Parish grand jury took no action against him on any charges. The panel indicted Henderson only on the firearms charge.

In taking no action against Felton, the grand jury left open the possibility that prosecutors could present their case against him in the future if more evidence becomes available.

Benton's mother, Theresa Tillman, spoke at Wednesday's sentencing hearing and said afterward she hopes and prays every day that the killer of her daughter and January will be brought to justice. She believes that man is Felton.

Felton's attorney, Tommy Damico, has said his client acted in self-defense that night.

An emotional Tillman said from the witness stand during Henderson’s sentencing that Henderson “caused great hurt to my heart and life” for his role in the shooting that took her only daughter from her.

“Now I have to suffer every day without my child,” she said.

Tillman pleaded with Higginbotham not to be lenient in sentencing Henderson, saying he deserves more than a tap on the hand.

“He’s young. He still gets a chance. She don’t get to come back and do it over. She’s gone,” Tillman said of her daughter, who would have been a senior at Southern this year.

The families of Benton and January accepted posthumously degrees granted to the students by the school in May 2016.

Henderson apologized Wednesday for his actions on April 10, 2016, and said he wishes he could take them back. He also said those events “opened my eyes” and “changed me for the better.”

“Everybody’s sorry when they’re going to jail,” Higginbotham replied.

Henderson’s attorney, Neal Wilkinson, asked the judge for leniency and a sentence of probation, noting that Henderson is working and did spend four months in jail following his arrest.

“Mr. Henderson reacted wrongly,” Wilkinson acknowledged. “He knew he made a mistake.”

The judge agreed with that statement.

“I don’t think you’re a bad person,” he said to Henderson. “I think you made a bad mistake.”

Henderson told police his brother had been involved in a fistfight with a group of people outside The Cottages the morning of the shooting. Henderson later drove back to the complex on Ben Hur Road to meet up with his brother and drove up to a crowd with his brother inside the car, a police report stated.

Wilkinson has said the angry crowd surrounded the car, so Henderson fired a shot into the air in an attempt to extricate himself from the volatile situation. Henderson drove around a curve and into a dead end in the parking lot, and as he turned around and tried to leave, Felton fired at the car, striking Benton and January, the police report said.

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.